Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Reasons to be optimistic

greenlandIf there has been one cause that has long inspired me above all others, it is the cause of small nations struggling to free themselves from oppression or domination by larger ones. Even before the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia made me interested in the politics and history of that region, when I was in still in school, I was greatly moved by the history of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence from Britain. I have long felt that the cause of freedom for oppressed nations has not figured as prominently as it should in progressive political thinking, and have always found national-chauvinistic ideologies that justify the suppression or forced assimilation of subject peoples to be uniquely horrifying. In the most extreme cases, such ideologies underpin acts of genocide – the most extreme form that national oppression can take. And for myself and kindred political spirits, genocide is the greatest evil humanity has produced.

Progressive thinking has, likewise, traditionally paid insufficient attention to the phenomenon of genocide. The inability of the Left to respond adequately to genocide was made abundantly clear by the events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. For some of us, this deficiency has been a catalyst to our disenchantment with left-wing politics in their traditional form. Not just because genocide-prevention has usually been assigned a lower priority than ‘class’, ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ causes, but because it presupposes outside intervention, something to which a large proportion of ‘progressive’ opinion has traditionally been averse.

Yet for all this, an unprecedentedly large number of nations have achieved national independence since the early 1990s, and the cause of genocide-prevention has entered the progressive consciousness in a way it never did before. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I’d like to highlight recent developments in these fields that should give us cause for optimism; developments that I really should have written about more fully and promptly, if only one had unlimited time as a blogger…

1) While the youth of Greece is still battling on the streets for its social and economic emancipation, a quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant movement for progressive change is taking place in neighbouring Turkey. More than 22,000 Turkish citizens have signed the following apology: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’

To apologise for the Armenian genocide should be, for Turkey, a matter of national honour. But it is also a matter of self-interest for any Turkish citizen who wants to live in a democracy. In Turkey, as in Serbia, Croatia, Greece and other South East European countries, national-chauvinist ideology is the single biggest enemy of democracy; the taunt of ‘traitor’ is used to silence dissent, while minority rights are trampled over in the name of the ‘nation’. Yet in the words of Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Istanbul’s university of Bahcesehir and one of the principal organisers of the Turkish campaign to apologise: ‘From now, anyone who speaks about the Armenian question will have to take into account this expression of consciousness. It’s a new element in the debate.’ Readers of this blog will be aware that I do not support the campaign for the US or UK officially to recognise the Armenian genocide, or any other historic genocide that has taken place in a foreign country, for reasons that I have explained in detail. The organisers of the campaign in Turkey likewise appear ambivalent about such campaigns in the US and elsewhere. It is only through a democratic campaign in Turkey itself that the country can gradually come to recognise what happened to the Armenians.

2) While progressive Turks are striking a blow against genocide ‘from below’, a blow has been struck ‘from above’, with the conviction and jailing for life of Theoneste Bagosora, the mastermind of the Rwandan genocide, and two of his collaborators by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Described by prosecutors as ‘enemies of the human race’, they were found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war-crimes. The record of the war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been less than perfect, but in this instance, at least, justice has been done.

3) A new genetic study apparently proves that twenty per cent of the population of the Iberian peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and ten per cent has Moorish ancestry. Another study proves not only that the ethnic origins of the Balkan nations are extremely mixed – which everyone knows, of course – but that the populations of Greece and Albania are genetically more Slavic in origin than the Slavic-speaking populations of neighbouring Macedonia and Bulgaria. Scientists have already proven the genetic kinship of Jews and Arabs.

The myth that ethnic differences are based on genetic differences remains surprisingly pervasive, not just among nationalists – of whom we expect no better – but among ‘educated’ opinion in general. Ethnic differences or identities that are disapproved of are frequently counterposed to ‘real’ ones in discussions about civil wars and other conflicts. Just as nationalists like to imagine their own group has been ethnically pure since Antiquity or earlier, so leftists are frequently fond of portraying ethnic differences as having been ‘invented by imperialism’, or some such nonsense. Yes, the modern nations of the world are largely the products of imperialism, colonialism and genocide, and many ethnic identities have been deliberately fostered by imperial overlords or other interested parties. So what ? All ethnicities are ultimately human constructs, with little or nothing to do with genetic differences. They are only as ‘real’ as their members or their persecutors feel them to be. The more that scientific studies undermine the disgusting, racist myth of ‘real’ ethnic differences, the better for human enlightenment and emancipation.

4) Kalaallit Nunaat, or Greenland, voted last month to increase its autonomy from Denmark, in what may be a step toward full independence. The Greenlandic independence movement is fuelled both by economic factors and by simple national feeling on the part of the predominantly Inuit population. I am fascinated by the Nordic world, not least because it has proven adept at managing the transition to independence of its constituent nations in a peaceful and civilised manner. It is up to the people of Greenland alone to decide whether they want to secede from Denmark, of course; nobody else can or should exercise a veto over this process. But should they choose to, the peaceful acceptance of their decision that Denmark will undoubtedly demonstrate should serve as a model for states all over the world, from Spain to India.

On this note, I wish readers a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008 Posted by | Armenians, Balkans, Denmark, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Greece, Greenland, Macedonia, Middle East, Political correctness, Racism, Rwanda, Scandinavia, Spain, The Left, Turkey | Leave a comment

Kosova’s independence cannot remain hostage to the will o’ the wisp of Serbian goodwill

vetevendosjeOnce again, Europe has become a serious threat to stability in the Balkans. The UN Security Council has voted to deploy EULEX, the EU’s law and order mission in Kosova, on the basis of the six-point plan of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The plan panders simultaneously to a Serbia that appears determind to keep fighting a war it has already lost, a Russia whose own ill-will and lack of faith have been demonstrated in Georgia, and EU members for which toadying to Russia is an end in itself. Although the UN Security Council vote did not formally mention the plan, and although the US has been at pains to stress that Kosova’s opposition to the plan has been respected, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is merely a fudge intended to mollify Kosovar opinion. Deploying the EU force in Kosova only on the basis of agreement with Serbia and Russia represents a dangerous precedent and unnecessary concession to ill-willed parties. This policy of ‘anything for a quiet’ life must be halted to avoid serious damage to our interests, both in the Balkans and in Europe as a whole.

The Ban plan has been rejected by the Kosovar leadership and by all sections of Kosovo Albanian political and public opinion, as contrary to Kosova’s constitution and damaging to its territorial integrity, and it is worth pausing for a minute so see why this is so. The plan bases itself on UN Security Council 1244, which guaranteed the ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’. As the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was transformed into the ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’ in 2003, and as this union then dissolved in 2006 when Montenegro voted to become independent, talk of its ‘territorial integrity’ being maintained from 1999 is meaningless. The Ban plan has adopted this form to appease Belgrade, which wants to turn the clock back to before the international recognition of Kosova’s independence of this year, and sees reaffirming the Resolution 1244 as a way of doing this. But paradoxically, Belgrade wishes to do this in order ultimately to move the clock forward – to impose a territorial partition on Kosova as the price for its independence, a partition that it has already enacted on the ground. By confining the EULEX mission to the areas of Kosova under the control of the Albanian-dominated government, and by maintaining separate police, courts and customs for the Serb enclaves under UN rather than EU control, the Ban plan will, if put into practice, solidify this soft partition, thereby appeasing Serbia on this score as well. Again, the US claims that the Security Council vote allows for the deployment of EULEX throughout Kosova, but whether EULEX will really be allowed to assume responsibility in the north appears uncertain.

It is, perhaps, a sign of how far several of the Balkan states have progressed in terms of democracy and responsibility, that they show greater awareness of the dangers inherent in this scenario than the supposedly mature democracies of Western Europe. According to Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, ‘The plan has serious problems, since it favours a soft partition of Kosova.’ After meeting with Berisha, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic warned that a partition of Kosova would destabilise the region, consequently ‘The division of Kosova along ethnic lines is a buried plan’. And in the words of Croatian President Stipe Mesic: ‘The division of Kosova based on Serb appetites is a dream of Serbia which reminds us of the epoch of the Milosevic dictatorship. And if it really happens as Belgrade intends, this means a step backwards. It means the realisation of the dream of Great Serbia.’ Although the sabre-rattling in which Serbia has engaged in recently in relation to Croatia and Montenegro as well as to Macedonia and the Western powers over Kosova is essentially empty, concessions of the kind represented by the Ban plan may serve to persuade Serbia that, despite its past defeats, aggressive behaviour does pay after all.

It is paradoxical that this UN plan for Kosova – rejected by Kosova, favoured by Serbia and unpopular with Serbia’s Balkan neighbours – has won EU approval, despite British and US reservations. Paradoxical, given that 22 out of 27 EU members, including all the larger ones except Spain, have recognised Kosova’s independence: the EU has ended up favouring a plan opposed by the side in the conflict whose position its members mostly support, and supported by the side that opposes the views of most EU members. This only makes sense if we consider the dynamics of European geopolitics. The EU’s foreign policy chief is Spain’s Javier Solana, considered by some at Brussels to have been rather quick off the mark in backing the Ban plan, and to have done so on the basis of Spanish rather than EU political considerations. Spain is, of course, the only larger EU member, and the only West European country, that refuses to recognise Kosova’s independence, and that indeed continues actively to lobby against it.

Meanwhile, the big three of the continental EU, France, Germany and Italy, are motivated by a general policy of conciliating Russia on all fronts, therefore of mollifying the Serbia-Russia bloc over Kosova. France holds the EU presidency, and at the EU-Russia summit this month at Nice, French President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to undermine the US plan for a missile defence system for Europe – to the consternation of the Czechs and Poles – and called for an EU-Russia pact, despite Moscow’s failure to honour the terms of the ceasefire in Georgia. Appeasement of Serbia, consequently of Russia over Kosova is of a kind with this policy orientation, one that directly sacrifices the interests – and in some cases the sovereignty – of the Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and, of course, Kosova.

Sarkozy’s Gaullist pursuit of an independent French line, in a manner that undermines the unity of the Western alliance, is not limited to appeasement of Russia, however; he has vocally supported Greece in its ‘name dispute’ with Macedonia, in contrast to the US’s support for Macedonia – despite the potentially tremendous damage that Greece’s aggressively nationalistic policy may do to the Balkans, and despite the fact that Macedonia has in recent years been a much better supporter of the Western alliance than has Greece. Sarkozy’s determination to keep our crucial Turkish ally out of the EU, expressed and justified in the crudest terms, is a further example of his pursuit of narrow French interests at the expense of common Western interests.

In Kosova, the consequences of EU appeasement of Serbia are beginning to make themselves felt, with the Kosovars – up till now the most pro-Western nation in the Balkans – uniting in opposition to the form EU policy is taking. Their opposition is manifesting itself in mass demonstrations, but there are ominous signs that resistance is also taking a more extreme form: on 14 November, a bomb attack was carried out on the EU representative office in Pristina, with a group calling itself the ‘Army of the Republic of Kosova’ claiming responsibility, and threatening further attacks against Kosovo’s Serb minority. Pursuing the will o’ the wisp of Serbian goodwill over Kosova, we have consequently let down our own Kosovar ally to such an extent that we risk engendering a new terrorist-extremist threat in this sensitive spot.

Things are going badly in the Balkans because Britain and the US, Kosova’s two strongest supporters in the Western alliance, have been far too reticent in standing up for our ally, and have allowed Russia, Serbia and their West European appeasers to make the running. Nor have we been sufficiently active on the world stage in promoting the cause of Kosova’s independence. Egypt, one of the opponents of Kosova’s independence, blocked Kosova’s participation at an Organisation of the Islamic Conference event in Cairo; despite being one of the largest recipients of US aid, the corrupt regime of Hosni Mubarak obviously has no qualms about undermining Western diplomacy in this gratuitous manner. Similarly, in last month’s UN General Assembly vote on whether the International Court of Justice should rule on the legality of Kosova’s independence, it was left to the US and Albania, virtually alone, to vote against; the EU members that recognised Kosova’s independence all abstained, while the five EU members that reject Kosova’s independence all voted in favour. So it is the troublemakers – Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Cyprus; the ones that are blocking a common EU policy on Kosova – that aggressively promote their own policy, while Britain pursues the line of least resistance.

The rot must be stopped. If Britain and the US are to prevent further deterioration of the situation in the Balkans, discourage Serbia’s escalating policy of revanchism, dampen the slide toward extremism in Kosova, make it clear to Moscow that its mischief-making will be met with resistance, and put a brake on the Franco-German-Spanish-Italian appeasement drive, we must be much more forthright and vocal in promoting our policies and interests and in standing up for our friends. This means waging a much more active diplomatic and public campaign in defence of Kosova. Diplomatic pressure should be brought to bear on the five EU members that have so far refused to recognise Kosova’s independence; in particular Spain which, as the only large and West European country among them, bears a particular responsibility for the failure to achieve EU unanimity on this question. Bad allies such as Egypt should be made to understand that they will suffer diplomatic and financial consequences if they continue to undermine us in the Balkans.

A successful diplomatic campaign is one half of winning the battle of Kosova. The other half is to achieve facts on the ground that make this victory an irreversible fact. Serbian attempts to undermine Croatia’s independence and annex parts of Croatian territory came to a definite end when the Croatian state became strong enough to assert its authority unchallenged across the whole of its territory. Similarly, Kosova’s independence will became a reality, irrespective of Serbian opposition, when a strong Kosovar state exercises full control over the whole of Kosova, including the area north of the River Ibar. Consequently, the EULEX mission must not be allowed to become a permanent international protectorate that prevents the emergence of a genuinely independent Kosova, but must work rapidly to put such a Kosova on its feet. Bosnia, where the international protectorate has wholly failed to create a functioning state or a stable political order, and where the situation is increasingly critical, should serve as a salutary warning of where a similar policy over Kosova might lead.

Britain and the US must therefore work together to ensure that the EULEX mission is a means to the end of a genuinely independent, territorially united Kosova, not to the end of keeping a lid on things indefinitely so as to appease Serbia and Russia. The very aim of Belgrade and Moscow is to undermine us and promote Balkan instability; they will use our weakness and our fear of confrontation to ensure that the lid comes off. The corollary of this is that we cannot establish an independent Kosova and stabilise the Balkans so long as we are pursuing the will o’ the wisp of consensus with these regimes. We must choose: to acquiesce in the destabilisation of the Balkans by two regimes that are taking us for a ride, or to move forward and resolve the situation once and for all, at the price of a few impotent howls from them. It should not be a difficult choice to make.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 30 November 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia, NATO, Russia, Serbia, Spain | Leave a comment

Football and the delights of national chauvinism

croatian-fan2After we watched the Croatian national team humiliate itself in the penalty shoot-out against Turkey last Friday, my friend Venichka pointed out to me that I now knew what it felt like to be English. The English, as everyone knows, specialise in losing at penalty shoot-outs, though I’m not sure even they could match the spectacular Croatian achievement of missing three penalties out of four. But then, I’m not qualified to offer any expert judgement on this, as I don’t follow football very closely. This is because I generally find it – and indeed all spectator sports – extremely boring. It only becomes interesting when it’s different countries playing each other, and one can indulge in a bit of socially acceptable national chauvinism. So every second summer, when it’s either the World Cup or European Cup, the underdeveloped and usually dormant part of my male brain activates itself and I watch a bit of football. Though the silver lining of Croatia being knocked out is that I haven’t felt obliged to watch any more matches.

Ven was right: despite being half-English, it was only for the first time last Friday that I felt the pain that watching one’s team lose at penalties involves; my national identity has never felt less conflicted. Here at Greater Surbiton we support the Croatian team. Failing that, we support either England, or any other former-Yugoslav team (except Slovenia). I’m not like Stephen Pollard or other defensive Jews, who resent being asked whether they support the English or the Israeli team, because it implies suspicion of a dual loyalty. In fact, I rather resent the assumption that, just because I’m English, I’ll be supporting England. I make no bones about having a dual loyalty, and I don’t care if that means I fail Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. Unlike many of my fellow British citizens, I support our boys where it actually matters.

Having become steadily less left-wing as I’ve grown older, I’ve now reached the point where I would support England in a match against just about anyone except Croatia. Part of the reason that this hasn’t been an easy point to reach is the usual right-on national nihilism, but part of it is the revulsion that I – a notorious snob – have always felt for English football culture. Our English football fans do so often seem to embody one of our quintissential national characteristics: possession of the mistaken belief that there is something funny or liberating is being loud, vulgar and obnoxious; in wallowing in our own boorishness. We are a genuinely sexy and charismatic nation – swaggering and staggering all over the Continent, vomiting and spreading venereal diseases. Going all the way over to Eastern Europe just so we can get drunk more cheaply, and engage in the same disgusting and offensive behaviour that we engage in at home, only with even less shame.

Why are we English like this ? I suspect that it’s our way of rebelling against our traditionally rigid system of manners, inbued as it is with class deference, and of finding an outlet for our sexual repression. But rudeness and vulgarity are not the alternative to rigid class-based manners, any more than promiscuity is the solution to sexual repression. It’s just a case of Jekyll and Hyde; of two halves of the same, schizophrenic national personality.

Be this as it may, the English have been better Europeans than the other large countries of Old Europe during the last ten years or so, therefore more worthy of support in an international football tournament. I was hoping that all these countries would be knocked out in the first round, but now, at the semi-final stage, there are still a couple of them left, and we may even have to rely on the Spanish or the Germans to stave off the nightmare scenario of a Russian victory. Of course, a German victory could be seen as a Russian victory-by-proxy, as the Federal Republic of Germany is nowadays not much more than a satellite of Russian imperialism (not entirely dissimilar to how the old German Democratic Republic was a satellite of Soviet imperialism).

In between plundering Croatia’s fishing stocks and posthumously decorating their Fascist police chiefs from World War II, the Italians find time to play the world’s most boring football, for which they are renowned the whole world over. So I was sorry they made it through to the second round – even more sorry than I was pleased at France being knocked out in the process. But the Italians received their comeuppance on Sunday when they were knocked out by Spain in a penalty-shoot out after a goalless draw. Never has such a typical Italian footballing result given such pleasure.

Here at Greater Surbiton we support the right of our Basque and Catalan sisters and brothers to national self-determination, and we are not best pleased by Spain’s mindless nationalistic obstruction of Kosova’s international recognition (my own feeling is that if countries like Spain, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus insist on conflating Kosova’s secession from Serbia with the ‘separatist’ threats that they themselves face, then we should take them at their word, and seriously consider whether some of these ‘separatist’ territories might not in fact deserve to have their right to self-determination recognised. If the Slovaks and Romanians insist that their Hungarian minorities are equivalent to Kosova, who are we to question this ?). But with this caveat in mind, we would rather Spain wins the tournament than either Russia or Germany.

Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that in the last European Cup, I was rather pleased that Greece won – they were the South East European underdog, and they played extremely well. But I can reassure my readers that I did not feel that way this time around. Greece’s three defeats in three games were one of the more satisfying results of the tournament. It’s almost as if the Orthodox God chose to smite Greece out of anger at its persecution of its neighbour and fellow Orthodox country, Macedonia. Or one could view it more prosaically as simply a matter of Greece returning to form after an uncharacteristic showing four years ago.

After everything has been taken into consideration, I am supporting the Turks in tonight’s game, and will be supporting them in the final if they defeat Germany. Poor Turkey is in a bad way politically right now; its progressive, reforming government is on the verge of being ousted by the nationalistic dinosaurs of the Kemalist establishment. Meanwhile, some of our fellow ‘Europeans’ – if one can grace them with that term – seem determined to prevent Turkey from joining the EU. A victory in Euro 2008 would provide Turkey with a much needed shot in the arm, in every respect.

And they also play good football.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Basque Country, Catalonia, Croatia, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Spain, The Left, Turkey | Leave a comment

Embracing Europe’s Islamic-Christian heritage

I have spent the last two weeks in Andalucia, Spain, where I attended an academic conference of historians from the former Yugoslavia. I was able to witness at first hand the evidence of the pride with which educated Spaniards view Spain’s Moorish heritage. The ‘Moors’ – a somewhat rough term that encompasses Arabs, Berbers and other Muslims and Arabic-speakers – ruled part of the Iberian peninsula between 711 and 1492. This is a period of 781 years: longer than there have been Europeans or their descendants living in the Americas; longer than there have been Protestants living anywhere. It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact this has had on European and world history; this is a subject that could not be exhausted by many scholarly studies, and I cannot begin to do justice to it in a humble blog post. But just to scratch the surface: Arabic numerals first appeared in Europe in al-Andalus – Muslim Spain – and spread across the continent thanks to the Mediterranean trade between Muslims and Christians; the astrolabe, an astronomical tool, was introduced to Europe via Muslim Spain and helped Christopher Columbus to discover America; Muslim Spain was also the conduit by which Christian Europe learned the secret of gunpowder, and much else besides. Nor does the Islamic contribution to European civilisation begin and end with al-Andalus; coffee was introduced into Christian Europe from the Muslim world, via Ottoman Constantinople and Venice, and into England directly from the Ottoman world.

To make this point is not to subscribe to the triumphalism indulged in by some Muslim commentators on the subject; Islamic civilisation was itself based upon Christian, Jewish and pagan foundations, just as Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism and a large part of Europe’s heritage derives from pagan origins, e.g. the seven-day week. Indeed, it is ultimately pointless to try to determine just how much of our modern heritage we owe to each religion or prior civilisation; Europe is a synthesis, and has been so for most of its history.

This is, however, something that is difficult for many contemporary nationalists – whether from predominantly Christian or Muslim countries – to acknowledge. Although I have had occasion to criticise Spain’s democratic deficiency, it is nevertheless a relatively mature democracy in comparison to several countries in the eastern part of the European continent. Thus, although Spanish national identity was greatly shaped by the centuries-long Christian Reconquista to drive the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, resulting in an exceptionally strong Catholic orientation that influenced, among other things, the outbreak and course of the Spanish Civil War; although Spain expelled its Morisco (Moorish) population in the early seventeenth century; yet today there is sufficient historical distance for modern, educated Spaniards to appreciate the Islamic conquerors as part of their national heritage, as we in England appreciate the Norman French. Not to mention our last successful conqueror, the Dutchman William of Orange, whose Dutch army invaded England and occupied London in 1688, driving out the legitimate English king, James II; successive generations of English historians have contrived to portray this successful foreign invasion as a ‘Glorious Revolution’. Spaniards treasure national monuments that date from Moorish times: Seville’s Giralda; Cordoba’s Mezquita; Granada’s Alhambra. Just as we in England treasure our Norman castles.

The readiness to accept past invaders, particularly those of a different religion, as part of one’s national heritage is, indeed, an acid test for the maturity of one’s democracy, and it is a field where the nations of South East Europe still prove deficient. Turkey is, as much as Spain, the product of a synthetic Islamic-Christian heritage; the Christian legacy is almost as visible in Turkey today as the Islamic, and many of Turkey’s greatest tourist attractions are Christian in origin, such as the Hagia Sophia and the rock-dwellings of Cappadocia. Yet however aware Turks are of their Christian heritage, it is something they tend to find difficult to come to terms with, as Bruce Clark has brilliantly described in his book Twice a stranger: How mass expulsion forged modern Greece and Turkey (Granta Books, 2007). The modern Turkish nation-state was founded upon the extermination or expulsion of millions of Christian Armenians and Greeks – just as the modern, post-Ottoman Christian Balkan nation-states of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro were founded upon the extermination or expulsion of much of the indigenous Ottoman Muslim population.

The tyrannical regime of Franjo Tudjman in Croatia in the 1990s made strenuous efforts to disavow Croatia’s Serb heritage. Yet the tune of the Croatian national anthem, Lijepa nasa domovina, was probably composed by Josip Runjanin, whose family was Serb Orthodox (the lyrics were composed by Antun Mihanovic, whose family was Catholic); the nineteenth-century father of integral Croatian nationalism, Ante Starcevic, had a Catholic father and a Serb Orthodox mother. Croatia’s greatest scientist, and one of the greatest scientists of world history, Nikola Tesla, was an ethnic Serb. The Croatian republic was established in the 1940s by a Croatian Partisan movement whose army, by the end of the war, numbered about 150,000 – roughly two-thirds of these were ethnic Croats and over one-quarter were ethnic Serbs. Tudjman’s own daughter Nevenka married a Serb and he, therefore, had part-Serb grandchildren. Yet in liberating the Serbian-occupied region of ‘Krajina’ in 1995, the Tudjman regime treated only the territory as having been liberated; the Croatian Serb population – natives of Croatia – was treated as the enemy. The bulk of this population having been evacuated by the Serbian-occupation authorities, the few Serb civilians who remained behind were systematically terrorised and frequently killed under the umbrella of the Croatian authorities, while Serb homes were burned and destroyed to discourage the refugees from returning – all this done to a national minority that had contributed so much to Croatia.

Turkey and Croatia are, however, currently under governments that are genuinely committed to turning their backs on such practices. Yet in areas where the national question is not yet resolved, local chauvinists are still engaging in the destruction of what should be treasured parts of the national heritage. The greatest building in the largest city held by the Bosnian Serb nationalists, the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka, was destroyed in 1993 by the Serb authorities, which have since successfully stymied all efforts at its reconstruction. In Kosovo, as I have written elsewhere, Albanian thugs in 2004 vandalised and desecrated local Serb Orthodox religious buildings; Serb thugs in Belgrade and Nis responded by attacking mosques and smashing Ottoman gravestones. These are acts of barbarity that would be equivalent to the Spanish today destroying the Alhambra. The Banja Luka Serbs may come to regret the destruction of what should have been their greatest tourist attraction; they can still rebuild it.

The Kosovo Albanians should treasure their Orthodox churches and monasteries, and the Serbs their mosques and Ottoman monuments, as the Spanish treasure the Alhambra, Giralda and Mezquita. The Kosovo Albanians should feel proud of the Orthodox part of their heritage, as the Serbs should feel proud of the Islamic part of theirs. Skanderbeg, the Albanians’ greatest national hero, was a Christian who fought alongside the Serbs against the Ottomans, and who had a Serbian daughter-in-law; the Albanian double-eagle flag is itself of Byzantine origin. The most powerful Bosnian ever to have lived was Mehmed-pasha Sokolovic, who, as grand vizier in the sixteenth-century, presided over the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power; Sokolovic came from a Serb Orthodox family and, although a Muslim convert, reestablished the Serbian Patriarchate of Pec. Whether Sokolovic was a ‘Serb’ or a ‘Bosniak’ is a meaningless question; he belongs to both nations today. The fact that there is a Serb population in western Bosnia is itself a product of the Ottoman heritage; the Orthodox spread westward in Bosnia under the Ottoman umbrella. Belgrade’s greatest building and tourist attraction is the fortress of Kalemegdan, which was built by successive occupiers including the Ottomans; the tomb of one of its Ottoman governors still stands prominently in its heart, inside which hung, at least until very recently, an Ottoman flag. Belgrade place names like Kalemegdan, Karaburma and Mirijevo are Turkish in origin.

(As an aside: while many of our contemporary Western ‘anti-imperialists’ like nothing better than patronisingly to stereotype the Serbs as ‘noble savages’ who have been holding out against ‘imperialism’ for centuries, Serbs in reality often bravely fought for the Ottoman, Habsburg and other empires. In the Battle of Ankara in 1402, when the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid was defeated by the great Central Asian conqueror Tamurlane, Bayezid’s Serbian troops fought loyally for him while his Muslim troops deserted. Kara Djordje Petrovic, who led the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century, served in the Austrian army; his name, and that of the Serbian royal dynasty that he sired – Karadjordjevic – is itself Turkish in origin. The Serb commander Stevan Jovanovic conquered Hercegovina for the Habsburgs in 1878. Serb troops from Croatia fought loyally for Austria-Hungary against Serbia in World War I. The Serb commander Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna successfully defended the Habsburg Empire from the Italians for the best part of World War I, and reached the rank of Field Marshal in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Serbian troops served alongside the British and French against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Etc. etc. Some of this should rightfully be celebrated.)

All of this is to say that the heritage of the nations of Europe that have experienced both an Islamic and a Christian presence, or a Catholic and an Orthodox presence, like the heritage of Europe as a whole, cannot be homogenised as the nationalists and religious bigots would like, and ‘purified’ of ‘alien’ national or religious elements. Whereas being a ‘good’ nationalist may once have been seen to involve tearing down an ‘alien’ mosque or a church, being a good European and democrat today should require the embracing of all elements of the national past, in all their rich multi-ethnic and multi-religious diversity, and rebuilding or restoring those same mosques and churches destroyed by previous generations. The unified, democratic Europe that is emerging requires not just the unification of our territories, but the unification of our histories.

Correction: My friend and colleague Andras Riedlmayer, whose expertise on the topic of cultural destruction and vandalism in Bosnia is second to none, informs me that what I have written above about the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka is out of date: the Banja Luka authorities have recently dropped their opposition to the reconstruction of the Ferhadija, and even provided modest financial support for it; reconstruction has consequently commenced under the direction of Professor Muhamed Hamidovic, retired dean of the Faculty of Architecture in Sarajevo. On this occasion, it is a pleasure to be corrected.

Friday, 15 February 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Islam, Kosovo, Serbia, Spain, Turkey | Leave a comment

The ghost of Franco

I wrote recently of how Greece and Cyprus have systematically allowed their own petty nationalistic concerns to distort EU policy. But it would be a mistake to view this sort of misbehaviour as being an exclusively Balkan or South East European failing. It is being reported that Spain has requested a delay in Kosovo’s declaration of independence until after Spanish elections on 9 March, for fear that recognition of Kosovo’s independence might encourage separatist sentiment among Spain’s Basque population and complicate the results of the poll. Abusing his position as EU foreign policy chief, the Spanish Socialist Javier Solana has been trying to hold back discussion of Kosovo’s independence until after 9 March to avoid creating problems for the Spanish Socialist (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

This Spanish tendency, to put selfish nationalistic concerns above Balkan stability, is nothing new: in 2002, Solana negotiated the unworkable ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’ in a futile attempt to avert Montenegro’s independence. When Montenegro nevertheless went ahead and held a referendum on independence in 2006, Solana insisted that at least 55% had to vote in favour, for the EU to consider the vote for independence as valid. This was, it seems, not only in order to make Montenegrin independence more difficult, but also to ensure that the threshold for votes for independence in other parts of Europe be kept high. When the people of Montenegro nevertheless voted in favour of independence by over 55%, Solana was quick to insist: ‘This is not a precedent for anyone, it is just for the situation in the Balkans. Anyone who compares Catalonia and the Basque Country with Montenegro is suffering from delirium tremens.’ In other words, Solana and other Spanish nationalists are indeed afraid that the secession of countries like Montenegro and Kosovo might become a precedent for the secession of Catalonia or the Basque Country, and will therefore try to obstruct such acts of secession. If the latter are successful, however, the Spanish nationalists will then argue that there is not really a parallel anyway. They want it both ways.

The United Kingdom, of course, is a multinational state with ‘separatist’ movements of its own, represented by the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, the UK supports Kosovo’s independence. This raises the interesting question of why Spain is afraid of Kosovo’s independence inspiring its own ‘separatists’, but the UK is not. One answer might be that the British government is more rational than its Spanish counterpart, and realises that Kosovo’s independence will not, actually, have any bearing on the domestic politics of the UK, Spain or any other West European state. Ultimately, if the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or indeed the people of Catalonia or the Basque Country, want independence, then they will not be deterred from seeking it by a failure of Kosovo’s bid. After all, there are plenty of successful precedents that ardent pro-independence patriots can look to, from the secession of the Netherlands and Portugal from the Spanish crown in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the more recent secessions of Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Montenegro, etc. Conversely, while Basque and Catalan nationalists welcomed Montenegrin independence, there is no evidence that it actually boosted their fortunes.

The knee-jerk Spanish hostility to Balkan ‘separatism’ is simply a reflection of paranoia, and a reminder that the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship, which came to an end only in 1975, has not really been overcome. The fascist assault on Republican Spain in 1936 was inspired in part by the desire to crush Catalan autonomy and safeguard a unitary Spanish nation-state. While Republican Spain granted extensive autonomy to the Catalans and Basques, Franco’s Nationalists abolished this autonomy and pursued a policy of forced assimilation of both nations. The autonomy was re-established following Franco’s death in 1975 and the restoration of democracy. But the Spanish political elite’s continued hostility to ‘separatism’ indicates that the ghost of Franco still lingers. Nor is this the only such indication. Spain continues to lay claim to the British territory of Gibraltar, on the Spanish coast, while refusing to recognise Morocco’s similar claim to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, on the Moroccan coast. The Spanish claim to Gibraltar was revived under Franco, who ultimately closed Spain’s border with the territory. Spain continues to make life difficult for the people of Gibraltar.

A West European state whose foreign policy toward South East Europe is motivated by domestic political concerns of this kind is clearly not a healthy entity; nor is it one that can play a constructive role in the EU. The obvious cure is for Spain to complete the transition to democracy begun in 1975, and recognise the right of Catalonia and the Basque Country (i.e. the Catalan and Basque Autonomous Communities) to secede from Spain, should they wish to do so. The question of whether other autonomous communities of Spain, such as Galicia, should possess this right should also be addressed. This may or may not lead one day to one or more territories breaking away from Spain, but Spain – properly democratic and freed from the fear of separatism – would be a winner either way. And a Spain that achieves such political maturity at home will cease to play such a destabilising role abroad. 

Monday, 21 January 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Basque Country, Catalonia, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Spain | 1 Comment

   

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