Review: The Balkans: A Post-Communist History

This review originally appeared on Balkan Academic News (March 2007).

Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries, The Balkans: A Post-Communist History (London and New York: Routledge, 2007). 620 pp.  24.99 GBP, ISBN 978-0-415-22963-0 (paperback).

Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries’s history of the post-Communist Balkans takes on the role of an ambitious survey – a political and economic country-by-country history of the region’s experiences and challenges since the fall of Communism, and a companion piece to their A History of Eastern Europe.  After three chapters dedicated to Albania, Bulgaria and Romania, the bulk of the book in fact turns out to be a history of the Yugoslav successor states, namely Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and ‘Kosova’.  Short introductory and concluding chapters justify the authors’ choice to name the region as ‘the Balkans’ (partly on the grounds that to German speakers the concept of ‘south-east Europe’ involves unwelcome connotations of Nazi geopolitics (p. 3)) and their assessment that European Union enlargement will positively influence the political culture of the Balkan states.

Bideleux and Jeffries are careful to avoid any suggestion that the social and political challenges affecting the Balkans today are the result of engrained ‘mentalities’ rather than the product of so-called ‘vertical’ power relations such as clientelism.  Even ‘ethnic collectivism’ itself (somewhat in the tradition of Joseph Rothschild’s Ethnopolitics) is understood not as a mentality but a power structure, which may potentially be restructured towards a ‘horizontal’ structure based on the rule of law and ‘rule certainty’ (p. 584).  The EU can contribute to such a process insofar as it is understood as ‘a strong liberal-cosmopolitan supranational legal framework’ and not a promoter of illusory common European values (p. 585).  Given the preconceptions with which students may approach the history of the Balkans, a textbook on the region can hardly emphasise its anti-essentialism enough.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the critical stance of the introduction and conclusion does not always seem to penetrate the dense political narratives of the country chapters.  The Croatia chapter’s treatment of 19th-century Croatian nationalists introduces the doctrines of Ante Starcevic as a ‘dangerous pan-Croatian nationalism’ which ‘eventually culminated in the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the “Independent State of Croatia”’ in 1941 – and adds that ‘a similar mentality was to result in President [Franjo] Tudjman’s blatant attempts to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina between Croatia and Serbia in 1992-4’ (p. 187).  All of a sudden, the pan-Croatian ‘mentality’ has become a motivating factor for foreign policy and mass murder; little hint, here, that the book’s readers should really be approaching the implementation of Starcevic’s, or anyone else’s, collectivism as a matter of power structures.

Producing a textbook of more than 600 pages to cover a space of 17 years entails a claim to be comprehensive.  Bideleux and Jeffries have kept their text up to date until at least mid-2006: the independence of Montenegro has been recognised, as has the EU’s decision in May 2006 to review the readiness of Romania and Bulgaria for accession (although the result of the decision is still described as pending).  One of the book’s strengths is its attention to economic affairs: these passages frequently allow a deeper understanding of the political narrative, particularly in the chapter on Bosnia and Herzegovina.  As for politics, detailed accounts are given of every change of government, and all national election results since 1990 (or 2001 in the case of ‘Kosova’) are included and briefly analysed.  However, ‘history’ for Bideleux and Jeffries appears to be largely an affair of parliamentary statistics and economic indicators.  Society, culture, media, gender, religion and other such harder-to-tabulate concepts take a back seat, and so – a product of the book’s country-by-country chapter structure – do transnational topics which cannot be discussed with reference to one particular state.  The Roma, for instance, would hardly figure in these particular post-Communist Balkans at all, were it not for the presence of the Party for the Complete Emancipation of the Roma in its tables of Macedonian election results.

When individual chapters are compared, the relative level of analysis they contain can come across as uneven.  Perhaps the single most effective analytical section occurs in the Bulgaria chapter, where the authors assess the effects of collectivisation and de-collectivisation on agriculture (a subject in which one of them has specialised).  This section demonstrates a command of the subject and sets it within wider European contexts, such as ‘the highly successful Danish model of farmers’ […] co-operatives’ (p. 98).  If such an approach (and equivalent familiarity with many more socio-economic issues) could have been applied throughout the book, the result would have been a valuably clear and robust learning resource.  Too often, however, events simply follow events as if they were a list of headlines ordered by date – especially as the accounts approach 2006.  The relative weighting, in terms of space, given to particular events can also be questionable: the Macedonian conflict of 2001 merits 27 pages, while the entire course of the war in Bosnia and in Croatia occupies 12 pages for each country.  Since so many of the chapters deal with Yugoslav successor states, one wonders whether a common historical and economic introduction might have been worthwhile.  As it is, the book’s organisation in its current state suits those in search of a ‘quick fix’ of Serbian (etc.) historical background, but not those who would like to be aware from the outset of connections between neighbouring states separated by several hundred pages of text.

Although the book’s focus is the Balkans since the fall of Communism, the authors have considered it important to provide briefings on the states’ history before 1990 because those experiences have often ‘helped to shape their responses to the end of Communist rule’ (p. 20).  These are invariably headed with the question of e.g. ‘Who are the Albanians?’ – or ‘Who are the Serbs?’ (p. 233) in the case of Serbia, but ‘Who are the Croatians?’ (p. 184) in Croatia’s case.  A consistent use of nouns denoting either ethnicity or citizenship would have been helpful, especially in cases where the post-Communist polities have been defined by ‘constitutional nationalism’ (Hayden 1992) and projects to implicitly reserve citizenship for a certain ethnic group.  Bearing in mind the sensitivity of state-nations’ myths of ethnic origin, it would also have been desirable for the medieval and pre-medieval histories to be treated with a consistent degree of scepticism.  The ‘Illyrian’ origins of the Albanians are discussed at length (pp. 23-7); the ‘Iranian’ origins of the Croats, which are themselves contentious (Bellamy 2003:34-5), are not (invasions of the Roman province of Illyricum were apparently carried out by ‘(Turkic) Avars, Slavs, (Iranian) Croats and (Iranian) Serbs’ (p. 184)).

The summaries become even more problematic when they deal with Yugoslav history during and after the Second World War.  After discussing the contested figures for war dead, the Croatia chapter’s discussion of the 1941-45 massacres in Yugoslavia concludes that ‘most of the Serbs, Montenegrins and Jews who perished did so either as victims of, or in the struggle against, fascist and ultra-nationalist aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide.  Conversely, most of the Croats and Bosniaks who perished did so either as perpetrators or as accomplices of fascist aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide’ (p. 191, emphasis in orig.)  A survey text like this, likely to be widely purchased by libraries, may represent many readers’ first introduction to the region’s history and the controversies which attend it; is such an unequivocal statement (which, for one thing, gives the impression that Croats and Bosniaks did not participate in the Partisan movement, even though their participation is mentioned on the very next page) really appropriate in a book of this nature?

Neither is the 1941-45 history included in the Serbia chapter without its flaws.  Nowhere is it stated that the Partisan and Cetnik movements (the latter mis-spelled as ‘cetniki’ (p. 239) rather than ‘Cetnici’) fought each other, only that Winston Churchill considered that Draza Mihailovic was not effectively fighting the Axis.  Of course space for historical background in a book devoted to the post-Communist era will be limited; however, in this case the addition of a sentence or less would have drastically improved the portrayal of this complex period.  The authors also seem to have uncritically accepted the viewpoint that the borders of post-war Yugoslavia were intentionally designed ‘to weaken the Serbs’, such as Montenegro’s republican borders being ‘deliberately drawn to include many Serb-inhabited areas which had never been part of Montenegro’ or the promotion of Macedonian language/culture ‘in order to negate long-standing Serbian claims to the territory of “Vardar Macedonia”’ (p. 240).  Given that this interpretation would be used in the 1980s as an argument against the legitimacy of the socialist regime (Dragovic -Soso 2002:84-8), it would be useful for the authors to have indicated its politicised connotations.

However, the most troubling question raised by the book concerns the authors’ depiction of the status of Kosovo/Kosova.  The ubiquitous selection of the Albanian name of ‘Kosova’ rather than the Serbian name of ‘Kosovo’ (also used by UNMIK) leads to absurdities such as ‘Serbs […] frequently refer to the region as “Kosova and Metohija”, which was its official name during much of the twentieth century’ (p. 514), or the substitution of ‘Kosova’ for ‘Kosovo’ in a direct quotation from Slobodan Miloševic ’s April 1987 speech at ‘Kosova Polje’ (sic!) so that it reads ‘Yugoslavia does not exist without Kosova…Yugoslavia and Serbia are not going to give up Kosova’ (p. 241).  Worse, this politically charged nomenclature is not justified at any point – even though several pages of the Macedonia chapter are used to explain their definitions of ‘Macedonia’.  The proof-reading of individual names occasionally leaves something to be desired (and it is a particular shame that an editorial decision has been taken to avoid the use of any diacritical marks; with contemporary typography there is no need to leave them out): the Serbian tabloid Vecernje novosti appears as ‘Vecernji novosti’ (p. 265), the Croatian politician Zlatko Matesa as ‘Zlatko Mateson’ (p. 207), and the site of Tudjman’s conference with Milosevic in March 1991 as ‘Karadgeorgevon’ not Karadjordjevo (p. 217).  These are oversights; the ‘Kosova’ nomenclature threatens to be a structural weakness.

A History of the Post-Communist Balkans may suit students of International Relations or economics, but may frustrate those with an interest in history.  Its political accounts seem to be drawn entirely from English-language newspapers (mainly The Economist, the International Herald Tribune and the British broadsheets) and essays from Transitions Online, and the almost entirely English-language bibliography contains only one work in a regional language (Romanian) plus one in Russian, leaving the reader wondering whether the authors’ information has already been filtered by the Western (if not UK) press.  In a work which states so clearly that the Western approach to the Balkans has been politically inadequate, it is surprising that the regional media seem to have been overlooked as sources of information.  There is every chance that this book, like its predecessor, will run into a second edition; perhaps the present authors might be joined by other collaborators with more languages and specialisms at their disposal.

Alex J Bellamy. 2003. The formation of Croatian national identity: a centuries-old dream?, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press).
Jasna Dragovic-Soso. 2002. ‘Saviours of the nation’: Serbia’s intellectual opposition and the revival of nationalism (London: Hurst).
Robert M Hayden. 1992. ‘Constitutional nationalism in the formerly Yugoslav republics’, Slavic review 51:4, 654-73.
Joseph Rothschild. 1981. Ethnopolitics: a conceptual framework (New York: Columbia University Press).


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