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Monday, March 17, 2003

Book Reviews

Déjà vu in the Balkans?

Is Southeastern Europe Doomed to Instability? A Regional Perspective edited by Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos and Thanos Veremis. London, Frank Cass, 2001, 254 pages, $57.50.

Following the assassination last week of Serbia’s prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, any book that seeks to shed light on the widely held view of the Balkan peninsula as violent and unstable is, to say the least, timely — and, in this case, prophetic. Nevertheless, this collection of essays can be seen as a sequel to Balkan Reconstruction, edited by Thanos Veremis and Daniel Daianu, which dealt with issues and problems of regional cooperation, the economy, society, and other aspects of transition in the countries of southeastern Europe (SEE). The present volume includes essays on human rights, democratization, civil society and the state, regional security, the media, and educational reform; they are written by people who have first-hand experience with the region, and the compendium as a whole is a well-balanced addition to the growing but still skimpy literature on this vital but neglected part of the world.

Dimitri Sotiropoulos and Thanos Veremis set the tone of the four-part volume in the introductory essay, correctly and forcefully pointing out that “the greatest peril of the states of Southeastern Europe lies in their being neglected and isolated.” To escape the crucible of history and avoid the harmful consequences of isolation, the authors urge the area’s leaders to “highlight commonalities” and “restructure and re-focus their policies in order to address the problems of the region” (p. 1). In other words, regional cooperation, and closer and sustained links to Europe, constitute the best hope for these countries to put behind their conflict-ridden past, overcome current economic and social difficulties, and build the foundations for a more promising future. The 14 essays that follow build on this theme by identifying, outlining, and assessing the problems, and the steps taken to address them, in a variety of areas.

Part I presents a sunny and optimistic view. Sule Kut and N. Asli Sirin labor to dispel the widely held perception that the peoples of southeastern Europe have known nothing but war and lack of cooperation. They draw attention to initiatives such as the 1934 Balkan Pact and the Balkan Alliance of the mid 1950s. Despite the Yugoslav conflict, a number of governmental and non-governmental cooperation schemes have been initiated in the last decade, “both by the countries in the region and the outside actors” (p. 15). Kut and Sirin feel that “the Balkans are trying hard to integrate into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures” and are “not a region doomed to instability” (p. 20). Irina Bokova strikes a similar, albeit slightly less optimistic, note regarding southeastern European efforts at integration with the European Union. Although the West has not been as “visionary and as deeply involved,” the region has taken steps to join the European mainstream, which she sees as “both a challenge and a solution” (p. 26).

The volume’s second part focuses on democratization and human rights. Haralambos Kondonis concurs with the previous authors that cooperation is essential and believes that “civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and groups, research centers and universities, mayoralties and municipalities, can play a vital role in activating the civil energies” (p. 44). He reports that “ten years after the end of the Cold War,” and despite historical legacies and political and bureaucratic roadblocks, “civil society tends to find its real role in the new democracies of SEE” (p. 55). In one of the volume’s strongest essays, Sotiropoulos deals with the role of the state and the daunting task of bureaucratic reform. Although some progress can be reported in countries like Bulgaria, “the overpowering and distant” nature of the state in southeastern Europe has changed little. He attributes this to weak civil societies, lack of bureaucratic accountability, difficulties in implementing reforms, and “the negative effects associated with the prolonged presence of the same political elite in power” (p. 64).

The essay by Remzi Lani and Frrock Cupi analyzes efforts to establish independent media following the collapse of communism. The authors find that “the tortuous and complex nature of post-communist transition has had an influence on the development of the media throughout the past decade” (p. 76). A chaotic and unclear legal framework, lack of financial independence on the part of news organizations, and bad habits inherited from the communist era are some of the woes dogging the media today. They point out that while the mass media have been able to dissociate themselves from the past, “the contours of their future are still unclear.” Yet in Lani and Cupi’s mind, the region’s media “have left behind the old days of communism” (p. 77).

If the region is to leave behind the bloody past and build a more promising future, however, it must purge schoolbooks of all “erroneous, false, exaggerated and/or offending statements about other nations, people, social and ethnic groups” (p. 96). As Mirella-Luminitsa Murgescu sees it, southeastern Europe has “made some progress,” but still has a long way to go (p. 97). She recommends new textbooks that conform to European patterns, affirm commitment to international organizations, promote democratic values, and implement major changes in teaching history. She also recommends workshops and seminars among professional educators from the countries of the area as a means to exchange ideas and agree on common editorial principles.

The compendium’s next section is devoted to security and social justice. In the post-Cold War environment, security has societal as well as traditional national-security components. In fact, organized crime and corruption are a greater menace to the lives of citizens than the swords and bayonets of soldiers (as, again, Zoran Djindjic’s murder confirmed). Ognyan Minchev’s essay focuses on the pervasiveness of organized crime and corruption in the area. Transition is a very difficult and vulnerable stage, institutions are weak and untested, and the distinction between “legitimate versus illegitimate (or deviant) behavior is much less explicit” (p. 105). In addition, the haphazard process of privatization, deepening poverty, and inadequate economic policies, coupled with the resurgence of traditional and often clan-oriented patterns of social behavior, have led to pervasive corruption and an alarming increase in crime. Minchev’s words are chilling: “Instead of the invisible hand creating the wealth of nations, the post-communist countries of the SEE have received the visible fist of the mafia dealer, of the corrupt statesman or the street racketeer.” Despite lofty promises of legality, liberty, and constitutionalism, “the population in these countries [have] met with interweaving of private-sector crime with public sector corruption” (p. 107). In his analysis of Bulgaria, Ivan Krastev avers that the problem is “not…a disease, but a symptom,” attributable to official incompetence, economic deprivation, and other historical and transition-related problems (p. 120). Like Minchev, Krastev believes that there are no easy solutions but feels that a regional approach and closer links with the EU can help.

The remaining three essays in this section deal with more traditional national-security issues. Radovan Vukadinovic argues that challenges to the area’s security are connected to the peninsula’s strategic location, lack of resources to maintain an adequate military organization, and absence of a strong and viable bilateral or multilateral alliance. Under the circumstances, he sees no substitute for regional cooperation and a “closer approach to Europe” (p. 147). The two pieces that follow, by Evangelos Kofos and Alexandros Yannis, focus on Kosovo. Kofos views Kosovo as a source of instability and advocates a UN-sponsored and -administered trusteeship as a way out of the morass. In his words, such an approach would convince Albanians to “become advocates of the peace process” instead of “perpetrators of acts of violence and prompters of regional instability” (p. 170). By contrast, Yannis urges the international community to implement UN Resolution 1244, which authorized the presence of military forces and a body of international civil servants to oversee and administer the region, until a permanent solution is reached. He believes that implementation of the resolution would “allow other forces, such as democratization, economic development, social and political transformation and, perhaps above all, regional integration in a wider European perspective to create the conditions for a comprehensive political settlement” (p. 187).

The final section of the book is devoted to three case studies: the respective futures of Kosovo and rump (now post-) Yugoslavia, and the dispute between Greece and Macedonia. According to Veton Surroi, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the involvement of the international community mean that independence for Kosovo is in the offing. In his view, the region is undergoing three significant transitions: political (from communism to democracy), minority to majority rule, and multiethnic entity to nation-state. All these will inevitably lead to independence and statehood. Unlike Surroi, Predrag Simic believes that uncertainty over the future of rump/post-Yugoslavia will complicate and delay developments in Kosovo. Simic understands that the fall of the Milosevic regime did not mean the end of former Yugoslavia’s problems. The Serb-Montenegrin partnership is problematic, and continuing difficulties in Macedonia and Bosnia do little to clarify the still foggy landscape. Relations between Greece and Macedonia are, however, the bright spot. As Aristotle Tziampiris correctly points out, the two neighbors managed to leave behind “the acrimonious dispute that defined their relations in the early 1990s” for a situation that “could create a strong partnership” (p. 222).

In the concluding essay, the editors use the opportunity to reiterate the central theme of the volume: that regional cooperation and strong ties with the EU and the rest of the West can help southeastern Europe move away from violence and instability toward peace and prosperity. As events proved last week, in other words, the peninsula cannot escape the crucible of history without vision and statesmanship by local leaders and the West. Otherwise, the area runs the risk of sliding back to war, bloodshed, and backwardness.

Constantine P. Danopoulos teaches political science at San Jose State University.
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