Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Book Reviews

Reconstructing the Balkans

The New Balkans: Disintegration and Reconstruction edited by George A. Kourvetaris, Victor Roudometof, Kleomenis Koutsoukis, and Andrew G. Kourvetaris. East European Monographs, Boulder, Colorado, 2002, 468pp. $62.

It seems that the global media visibility of the Balkans following the collapse of the Yugoslav federation in 1991 did not translate into increased global understanding of the region’s political, economic, and cultural complexities. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important, in my opinion, is the relative paucity of scholarly research in English. Of course the book market has been inundated by so-called studies of the Balkans (history, politics, culture, and so on), but once we separate out the impressionistic journalism and nationalistic historiographies of those with agendas to sell, we are not left with much. We can no doubt point to the pioneering works of Lenard Cohen, Sabrina Ramet, Constantine Danopoulos, Susan Woodward, and a few other US-based scholars, and yet there is a sense that the Balkans are still in search of those who will not only chronicle the decline and corruption of political forms and normative standards, but also actively engage in constructing new, workable frameworks of tolerant multiethnic coexistence.

I think that the volume edited by George Kourvetaris et al. takes a praiseworthy step in this direction, but regrettably does not go far enough precisely in the area where the most important work remains to be done. Its subtitle refers to Balkan disintegration and reconstruction: unfortunately, there are countless pages on the former, but very few on the latter. In other words, what this volume lacks is imaginative thinking about the Balkan future, the kind of thinking that can guide policymakers to develop durable, democratic institutions that would enable the peoples of the Balkans to live a life free from economic and political hardships. Perhaps that is too much to ask from any academic volume; but if academics are not interested in influencing policymakers, I think that they are missing a chance to utilize the knowledge that they possess in order to change existing realities and make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.


This volume grew out of a special 1996 issue of the Journal of Political and Military Sociology, founded and edited by Kourvetaris, which was devoted to the political and economic implications of Balkan developments during the 1990s. In its present incarnation, it contains 16 articles, most of them revised and some newly commissioned. An added plus is that the volume concludes with an annotated bibliography provided by the authors.


The articles themselves are divided into three general areas: history and ethnic conflict (8 articles); economic development and civil society (4 articles); and geopolitics and security policy (4 articles). As one can see at a glance, this means that most of the volume is oriented toward the Balkan past, not its future. And while it is true that the future is incomprehensible without considering the past, this approach should not have excused the authors from being more creative about proposals for combating the all-around stagnation and even hopelessness of many in the region at the present time.


In addition, there appear to be two clear polemical positions in some of the articles. The first one is to identify with the political outlook of the Greek government: the most egregious examples are the articles by Demetrius Floudas and Alexandros Kyrou. These two articles deal with issues that, since the early 1990s, have arisen between Greece and Macedonia. The authors dismiss the arguments of the Macedonian side as propaganda, while openly flaunting their sympathy with official Greek positions. As far as I am concerned, it is always a tragedy for academics to function as mouthpieces of politicians. Politicians have divided up the Balkans; how can academics help heal the divisions if they simply mimic them? And how can there be a new Balkans if political hostilities are perpetuated even in the supposedly objective medium of social science?


Another polemical stance that appears in some articles (not necessarily the same ones) is criticism of US foreign policy. For instance, George Thomas provides a thoughtful critique of the US ideology of humanitarian intervention and shows that it is no more than a fig-leaf for pursuing US national interests. In other words, it is a liberal surface covering over the core realism of US foreign policy. Similarly, Edward Tirakyan argues that the real reasons for US-NATO intervention in Kosovo were kept from the public by an essentially undemocratic collusion between the US military and major US TV networks. (A parallel with the current war in Iraq immediately comes to mind.) According to Tirakyan, while the stated reasons for intervention in Kosovo involved rectifying human rights violations against Albanians and weakening a dictatorial regime in Serbia, the real reasons had to do with legitimizing the continued US military presence in Europe and garnering sympathy in the Islamic world.


It is difficult to disagree with Thomas and Tirakyan, and not to see the realist orientation of US foreign policy. The Clinton and Bush administrations are not really all that different in this matter, and the close attachment of Tony Blair to both of them seems proof enough of that. However, in my opinion, criticism of the US should not be confused with criticism of the concept of humanitarian intervention per se. I think what needs to be done is not, as Thomas and Tirakyan seem to imply, to end humanitarian interventions altogether or to prohibit the US from taking part in them (as if this could be done!). Instead, what should be done is to make the standards or criteria for intervention more consistent and less eurocentric. In other words, if human-rights abuses lead to international intervention in Europe, they should also do so in Africa and Asia. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Laos have been no less in need of an impartial international presence than Kosovo or Bosnia.


Although I think that the second stand is more justified than the first, I still do not see how polemics contribute anything to the most important task at hand: the construction of a tolerant and multiethnic Balkan future. Do we want to integrate the Balkans into the West, or keep the West apart by persistent grudges? Remember, the past does not have to be the measuring stick for the future, and things do not move in a circle: they get better or worse. We need imaginative thinking that combines critique and affirmation, and not simply one or the other.


There are a few articles in this volume that demonstrate this kind of thinking. Tina Mavrikos-Adamou’s article on civil society in the Balkans is one of them. I strongly agree with her general thesis that a vibrant civil society can provide a source of political legitimacy for emerging democratic institutions. This is so because in the shape of civic associations and forums, non-governmental organizations and trade unions, civil society strengthens the public’s voice vis-à-vis professional politicians. This is precisely what is needed to break the patron-client networks that have historically dominated the region’s politics. Mavrikos-Adamou’s work is particularly helpful on this point, as she provides a detailed survey of the activities of both foreign and indigenous NGOs in the Balkans. It is one of the very few surveys of this kind available in English.


Another article that deserves special mention is by Eleftherios Botsas and deals with the region’s economy. Botsas shows that the transition from centrally planned to market economies has been extremely painful for local populations. He argues that even those countries of the former Soviet bloc best-positioned to take advantage of the changing economic winds, such as Poland and the Czech republic, took more than seven years to get their GDPs to pre-1989 levels. On the other hand, Bulgaria, Romania, and the former Yugoslav republics (except Slovenia) probably will not return to those levels even in 20 years, which means that youth in those countries face a gloomy and increasingly hopeless future.


Can anything be done to alleviate their plight? Botsas offers some suggestions. He claims that more foreign direct investment and the establishment of firmer links with the European Union might reverse these disheartening trends. Yet can we really expect these suggestions to work in the near future, considering the political instability and corruption that pervade Balkan societies? I would say that without a strong civil society, willing to confront and recall corrupt policymakers, not much progress will be seen on the economic or any other front.


Lastly, there are two articles in this volume that disappointed me in particular, perhaps because I expected more from their authors. The first one is a collaborative work between the volume’s editor, George Kourvetaris, and his son, Andrew. It attempts to explain the causes of ethnic nationalism using the collapse of the Yugoslav federation as a case study. However, what we are given is no more than a classificatory division of the different ethnic movements without a clear explanatory theory. For instance, the term, “subnationalism,” employed to describe some of these movements is problematic at best, since it conceptually privileges the nationalism of already established countries as if nationalism is not the same phenomenon wherever it is found. Another weakness of the article is its extensive reliance on the Laslo Sekelj’s monograph regarding the Yugoslav disintegration. Although I do not question Sekelj’s credentials, I think that Kourvetaris and Kourvetaris should have consulted different and contrasting points of view. Not everybody subscribes to the thesis that Yugoslavia fell apart primarily because of the nature of its political and economic system, for instance.


I also expected more from Victor Roudometof, the author of an important recent book on Balkan nationalism (Nationalism, Globalization, and Orthodoxy). I expected to see the conceptual development of certain ideas from the previous work, especially concerning the almost-forgotten tolerance of civic traditions in the Balkans. The discussion of these traditions, in my opinion, represents the major contribution of Roudometof’s book to existing Balkan scholarship. However, his article in this volume is no more than a mini-summary of a couple of the book’s chapters, with similar wording in some parts. It seems to me that one should submit something for publication only when one has something new to say, and not simply for the sake of getting an additional publication (and a line in the resume).


Overall, this volume is a mixed bag. While some articles are very much worth reading and discussing, others can probably be skipped for the reasons I pointed out. Once again, I would say that what Balkan scholarship needs at this time is new thinking about the future, which will break out of the circle of grudges and accusations, and focus on building a common economic and political future for all Balkan peoples, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or religion. This volume provides some evidence of this kind of thinking, but one hopes for much more. Academics have a responsibility to take part in the project of reconstruction — at least as autonomous moral voices of their respective civil societies.

Filip Kovacevic is a political theorist who received his graduate training at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
Page 1 of 1 pages