Bal=honey. Kan= blood. Bal-kan= the land of blood and honey.The Balkans is a region of Eastern Europe that includes Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and part of Turkey.
The legend of how the Balkans got its name is a perfect metaphor for the region. Supposedly the Ottomans, when they invaded up through Serbia and into Bosnia, saw the land full of rich resources, blue lakes, and green mountains and declared it “bal”, however, after countless insurrections and battles with the native people, their picturesque view was tempered and they added the term “kan”. Recent history has only reinforced the Land of Blood and Honey’s dichotomous identity—in the 1990’s the unifying communist experiment known as Yugoslavia shattered into bloody civil wars. The violence was the worst in Europe since WWII, with genocide and “ethnic cleansing” as common occurrences. The warring finally ended thanks in part to intervention by the international community who saw the strategic importance of the region. The U.S. was very involved and is perhaps held most responsible for the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia that helped stop the Kosovo War. Since then, the area has been held together by international oversight and White House inspired solutions; however, the fear of a relapse to conflict has continued to hang overhead.
Now things are heating up. Ethnic tensions, long simmering under the surface, are resurfacing. Burgeoning nationalist movements in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo, emboldened by the success of nationalist movements in Ukraine and Crimea, threaten to destabilize the whole region. Local politicians have long exploited old ethnic hatreds and pursued nationalist aspirations to boost their popularity but the situation has grown yet more tense with the involvement of international actors in much of the unrest. There is international competition in the region as the Balkans are a strategic link between Central Asia and Europe. The U.S. and EU, who have long tried to control the region through NATO and EU expansion, have sought to integrate the Balkan nations into the West. However, Western powers have seen their popularity decline as Russian and Turkish soft power has increased.
This rise of Russia is most frightening. Russia ambitions in the region are taking the forms of espionage, terrorism, and propaganda. Last year, Montenegrin officials claimed that the Russian government tried to organize a coup against a pro-west NATO-leaning leader. Montenegrin officials allege that two Russian spies had planned to seize parliament and assassinate the Prime Minister with the ultimate goal of replacing the West-leaning government. Russia has been supporting pro-Slavic and Russian-leaning politicians to combat NATO expansion. Arms sales to Serbia embolden the nation to make threats against Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia. Turkey has also gotten involved. President Erdogan used the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia to criticize the Netherlands, whose UN peacekeepers allowed the massacre to happen right under their noses. He has sought to paint himself as a protector of Muslims and to villainize Europe. Turkey has increased its soft power in the region and some analysts suggest that Erdogan hopes to use the Balkans as a lever against the EU.
The Trump administration may soon face the first test of their foreign policy credentials. The Balkans have become a staging ground between the West and East. A Cold War type proxy war is a very real possibility. Political solutions, forged in DC over two decades ago, are now slowly collapsing.The consequences are intensifying ethnic tensions and solidifying nationalistic attitudes. Are the Balkans destined to repeat the civil wars of the recent past? Will it be blood or honey?
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