Explainer Top Story

Why They Come: The Balkans’ Desperation

The geography and history of the Balkans explain why so many seek a better life in Western Europe.

Belgrade Serbia
Skyline of Belgrade, Serbia, August 22, 2011 (Serzhile)

Much of the world’s attention is fixed on the refugee crisis emanating from the warzones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It’s a simple enough narrative for journalists: fleeing the bombs and bullets of the Islamic State or the Taliban, refugees swarm peaceful Europe, hoping for humanitarian salvation.

But that narrative overlooks a key failure of European migration policy. This wave of migration is hardly new. On the continent itself are states that have long propelled their citizens to jump the borders for greener pastures in Western Europe.

Three of Germany’s top five asylum-seeking countries of origin are not in the wartorn Middle East but rather the overlooked Balkans: Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Macedonia, another Balkan state, ranks seventh.

What’s happening here? Why are fellow Europeans from peaceful states fleeing to Germany?

Going beyond the ghost of Tito

It’s easy to start at the death of Marshal Josip Broz Tito in 1980 as a means to understand why people are leaving the region. One could even say, “the Balkan Wars” as a standard bite-sized answer. But although both matter, neither is the decisive factor.

The Western Balkans are unfortunately situated geographically. They endure cold winters sweeping in from the north yet can be swamped by humid summers swarming from the south. They are riddle with hills and mountains but have no great ranges to divide one region from another. The Danube provides a natural barrier to the north but not an impassable one.

These conditions meant that the Balkans were appealing to invaders from both the cold north and the warm south, creating a long-lasting borderland between powers based in either warm Greece or cold Central and Eastern Europe.

Examples of these climate and geographic rivalries are replete in history. Reaching back Antiquity, cold-weather Celts fought warm-weather Greeks back and forth across the region. Greek-based Romans warred with Central and Eastern European tribes.

As the region passed back and forth between empires and kingdoms, indigenous and unique cultures arose as conquered blended with conqueror, giving way to new conquerors who blended themselves further. Slavs emanating from the frigid Northern European Plain settled the region before the year 1000, forging a distant ethnic link between the steppes of Russia. Proximity to the Eastern Roman Empire turned the region to Orthodox Christianity while its status as a borderland brought Catholic missionaries as popes tussled with Constantinople’s emperors.

The final piece of the human puzzle was completed by the coming of the Sunni Ottomans who left behind Muslim converts sprinkled throughout their domains. Wars between the Ottomans and Hapsburgs in Austria created a landscape riddled with further diversity: both powers counted on cultural and ethnic revolts to gain advantage against the other, forcing the powers to compromise on cultural purity in exchange for stability and power.

The cracks covered up

These divisions were largely irrelevant in imperial times when outside forces imposed their will on the region’s diverse groups. But when nationalism emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century, Balkan peoples began to agitate for autonomy and independence based on the national litmus tests applied elsewhere: a common language, a common religion and a common culture forged a common nation.

The 1840s Greek War of Independence ignited nationalistic passions throughout the Balkans and as imperialism waned and Ottoman power ebbed, the region found itself for the first time in centuries under self-rule.

But that gave rise to a new geopolitical phenomenon: the Balkan tinderbox

Worried European strategists, especially British ones who obsessed over a continental balance of power, saw in the Balkans a borderland with so many internal cultural and ethnic conflicts that any number of great powers could pick and choose skirmishes to blow up into wars. That’s precisely what happened. When Serbian nationalists killed Austria’s crown prince, the Dual Monarchy used it as an excuse to annex Serbia, sparking World War I.

After the war, the victorious Allies sought to erase the Balkan tinderbox. They constructed a kingdom to paste over the divisions: Yugoslavia. Multiethnic kingdoms worked in other places, notably Britain, so why not the Balkans?

This formula worked well enough until Germany under Adolf Hitler upended the entire European power structure. Yugoslavia was caught in the mix and an anti-Nazi coup by Serb officers caused a German invasion.

The Germans played ethnic groups off with ruthless efficiency. Recruiting Bosniaks and Croats eager to gain status, the German occupiers sparked a civil war between anti-Nazi Serbs and pro-Nazi quislings.

Among the most successful of these guerrillas were the pan-Yugoslav communists under Tito. They firstly enjoyed Soviet arms and secondly overcame the region’s ethnic problems by positing a new communist nationality under the Yugoslav flag.

Held together whether they liked it or not

Tito practised the same ruthless communist nationalism as his Russian contemporary, Joseph Stalin, suppressing ethnic agitation and promoting a new nationality for his subjects. Charting an independent foreign policy from the Soviet Union, but not so independent as to provoke a Soviet invasion, Tito’s personality and governing style blanketed over the region’s many differences.

That last as long as Tito did. When he died in 1980, his cadres carried out his national vision for ten years. But the tottering of Soviet economics coincided with a similar bankruptcy in Belgrade — the Yugoslav state failed to pay bills on time.

Following the Soviet reform model, Yugoslav leaders tried to restructure both politics and economics; it was the former that was fatal.

Glasnost gone lethal

In both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, opener politics allowed long-oppressed ethnic nationalism to burst into the fore. In the the former, Russian nationalism helped bring about the death of the union. In Yugoslavia, Serbian nationalism did the same.

But unlike the Soviet Union, where Russia was so large and populous that losing republics like Kazakhstan and Ukraine didn’t seem to be a mortal threat to Moscow, Yugoslavia was more evenly divided with long-held grudges from World War II and before. When ethnic groups like the Bosniaks and Croats agitated for autonomy and later independence, Serb elites saw an existential threat. They embarked on a war that morphed from a battle for Yugoslav unity into outright genocide.

This war eventually resulted in three conditions that have since kept most the former Yugoslavia out of the European Union and propelled migrants to seek better lives there: a split Bosnia, a corrupt state and a war debt still being paid.

Why they can’t yet join the EU

Joining the European Union would turn each of these migrants into citizens who can move freely across the continent. But none of their home countries can yet ascend to that status.

Each still has war hangovers that need to be cured. War criminals abound. A full reckoning would require a painful purge that might renew fighting. Bosnia remains divided between an armed Muslim and an armed Serb-run section, both of whom distrust one another and won’t cooperate to tick the necessary boxes to join the EU.

Fears of Albanian expansionism convince Macedonia and Serbia to take a hard line against Kosovo-inspired separatism. Serbia has yet to recognize Kosovo’s independence. This fear and mistrust, deeply rooted in war and conflict, corrupt state structures. When a state doesn’t see its neighbor as fully human, it’s hard to properly fulfill human rights requirements.

The last reason they have yet to join the EU is not entirely their fault: decades of misrule have hobbled their economies, making them unattractive candidates in a Europe gripped with the Greek crisis. More pauper states to join the union? Few Europeans much like the idea of footing yet more foreign bills. With the euro as shaky as it is, undeveloped economies in the Balkans are deeply unattractive.

The near future: growth by baby steps

There are good signs of increasing accountability for the war crimes committed in the 1990s. Serbia has begun to cooperate with The Hague, handing over war criminals. Albania has emerged from its communist dytopian economy to enjoy commendable growth. Each passing year makes the Balkans a little more just and a little wealthier.

But such progress is measured in years. The contentious issue of what to do with fractured Bosnia may require a peaceful greying of the warriors who once committed unspeakable acts on its soil, allowing a younger generation with no memory of Tito or genocide to take power. Such a process is generational. Only determined elites coordinating in Albania, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia could accelerate it — a deeply unlikely turn of events.

The wild card: Putin

That being said, the Balkans’ condition as a borderland, riddled with differences easily exploited by great powers, remains. As Russia’s Vladimir Putin seeks to regain lost ground, old alliances with Serbia may be awakened to Moscow’s advantage. Such alliances may help the Russians try to regain influence on Europe’s southern flank but they will have to tempt the Balkans with cheap energy and military goods if they are to compete with the fruits of the European Union. To repeat Ukraine so far afield would be folly and doomed to fail.

That doesn’t mean Putin won’t try. Playing for regions means using every card at one’s disposal.