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Conflict in the Balkans
March 26, 1999

Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia began in 1991, the question has presented itself: Is there hope for peace in the Balkans? If so, will it be a lasting peace or merely another episode of ethnic domination and stifled dissent? In his article "The Balkans: Europe's Third World" (July, 1989) Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert D. Kaplan explored the origins of the conflict then brewing in the Balkans, a conflict only shallowly submerged beneath the imposed unity of the Communist Yugoslav regime. Writing just months prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kaplan examined the true nature of the Balkan alliance and the disturbingly real specter of a Balkan war looming in the background of a crumbling Soviet Union. With the end of the Soviet Union's "industrial feudalism" and the removal of a common enemy to keep the ethnic rivalries at bay, Kaplan theorized, the Balkans stood poised to play as great a role in defining the balance of power at the end of the century as they did in the beginning of it, in the events that catalyzed the First World War.
In his address in 1987 commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, [Mikhail] Gorbachev boasted that in 1917 "mankind crossed the threshold of real history....we departed from the old world and irreversibly rejected it." ... The "old world" is now striking back with a vengeance. The economic underdevelopment engendered by ... Moscow's "industrial feudalism" simply aggravated ethnic hatreds and postponed the day of reckoning.

In the 1970s and 1980s the world witnessed the limits of superpower influence in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan. In the 1990s those limits may well become visible in a Third World region within Europe itself. The Balkans could shape the end of the century, just as they did the beginning.
The portrait that Roland G. Usher paints of the Balkan region just prior to the outbreak of the First World War is disturbingly similar to Kaplan's. In his article "The Balkan Crisis," published in The Atlantic in January of 1913, Usher describes the Balkans as a poverty-stricken area of Europe populated by diverse peoples, who, "isolated (until lately) from the world and from each other by the difficulties of communication...became inevitably narrow, bigoted, fiercely partisan, unprogressive, certainly in no way fitted to influence the affairs of Europe." Yet influence the affairs of Europe they did, and that influence grew into the First World War.


Related feature:

Flashback: Balkan Epic
In 1937 the novelist Rebecca West traveled to the Balkans in search of a better understanding of that region's historical conflicts. Her classic account of that journey, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 1941.

In a speech at the 1995 graduation exercises at Harvard University, Czech president Vaclav Havel made explicit reference to the conflict in the Balkans and called for the great powers of the world to assume the responsibility that accompanies power and refuse to yield to the forces of isolationism. Citing the United States's late entry into the First World War and President Roosevelt's counsel to the Czech president to reach an agreement with Hitler as examples, Havel argued that the history of American isolationism has done little more than increase the price the United States has ultimately paid to become and to remain a world power. In the nuclear age, Havel warned, the price for such continued isolationism could well be too high to pay.

As the world's pre-eminent superpower, does the United States have a responsibility to try to fill the vacuum created by the end of the Cold War? Or, as Ronald Steel argues in "The Domestic Core of Foreign Policy" (June, 1995) and as Benjamin Schwarz argued in "The Diversity Myth" (May, 1995) should the United States act only to protect defined national-security interests? Is it conceivable that ethnic rivalries that have existed for centuries can never be put to rest? Or will any outside attempt to bring about peace merely result in yet another ideological imposition masking the unstable fault lines beneath?

In addition to the articles by Kaplan and Usher, we've included three articles that appeared in The Atlantic's December, 1962, issue as part of a special supplement on Yugoslavia. In "The Bridge Between East and West," the renowned Croatian poet and dramatist Miroslav Krleza describes the place of Yugoslavia in history as a "refuge for heretics" and the meeting point of East and West. Fred Warner's "Yugoslavia at the Crossroads" looks at the effects of Titoism on the Yugoslavian economy and its ability to compete in the world market. And in "The Building of the Roads", Tomislav Badovinac describes the post-war youth brigades that worked to build the modern Yugoslav throughway named "Brotherhood and Unity" in the summer of 1961.


Also see Flashback: Balkan Epic
In 1937 the novelist Rebecca West traveled to the Balkans in search of a better understanding of that region's historical conflicts. Her classic account of that journey, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 1941.

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