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Week In Review: Commentary and Analysis, 97-02-16

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By Dr. Chris P. Ioannides <>

Sacramento, February 16, 1997


The Balkans are back in the news. As it happened throughout most of this century as well as in the last few years, the Balkan region came to be associated with violent conflict. The term "Balkanization" has become synonymous with conflict leading to fragmentation of regions, countries and societies. What transpired in former Yugoslavia, the Bosnian crisis especially, reaffirmed the concept of "Balkanization." Over the last few weeks, a wave of unrest has shaken Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria. Violence erupted anew in Bosnia and in Turkey tanks rolled menacingly through the streets of a town near Ankara. The whole Balkan region is experiencing the aftermath of the collapse of communism. The road to free market economies and multi-party systems is causing major socio-economic dislocations that in turn, lead to political upheaval. In the midst of all this turmoil, Greece emerges as the main source of stability in the area..

The Balkan situation is especially acute in Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania. For different reasons, Turkey is also going through a major domestic crisis. In Bulgaria, the situation deteriorated sharply over the last two months. The economy is in shambles to the point that in some areas there exist the prospect of famine. Mass demonstrations in the capital Sofia became daily phenomenon, as the opposition was demanding new elections with the aim of ousting the socialists from power. Bulgaria's new President Petar Stoyanov is going to lead the country to new elections in April. The center-right party, the Union of Democratic Forces, is expected to prevail over the ruling socialists. Still, Bulgaria will be faced with an enormous economic problem in the foreseeable future and will need external aid in order to put its economy in order.

In Serbia, opposition forces have been carrying out daily demonstrations for the last ten weeks against the government of President Slobodan Milocevic. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the Streets of Belgrade demanding Milocevic's resignation. The, Serbian Orthodox Church that until recently remained neutral, sided openly with the opposition. The Milocevic government appears to have accommodated some of the opposition demands but it is far from clear whether the present regime will survive. The economic situation in Serbia, despite the economic embargo that was recently lifted, is relatively better than Bulgaria. But economic hardship is widespread. At the same time, the situation in the Kosovo province remains tense. Kosovo's Albanian population, which constitutes the overwhelming majority, is waiting for signs of weakness in Belgrade in order to demand autonomy and may be more. This fundamental problem will not be solved automatically if the democratic opposition comes to power in Serbia. The opposition forces include diehard Serbian nationalists who will oppose any change in the status of Kosovo.

Next door, Albania is moving closer to civil war. Being the poorest of Balkan countries, with yearly per capita income 700 dollars, Albania has been shaken by violent demonstrations the last four weeks. A gigantic financial scam has shaken the country's feeble economy. Hundreds of thousands Albanians, out of a population of only 3.2 million, lost their savings in a mafia like pyramid scheme. Those who invested in the scheme through several banks, blame the government for failure to protect them and began a series of demonstrations in the capital Tirana. Mass discontent spread quickly throughout the country. The government of a quixotic figure, President Sali Berisha, attempted to shift the blame on the opposition and sent out the police which beat up demonstrators killing three in the process. The Berisha regime has also been discredited because of the use of widespread fraud in recent national elections. Greece is especially sensitive to developments in neighboring Albania. Greek-Albanian relations have improved substantially over the last few years. Still, Albania's Greek minority has been suffering systematic persecution for several decades. The Orthodox Church of Albania is still not allowed to operate freely. This, despite the fact that it is led by Archbishop Anastasios, a spiritual leader of great wisdom who preaches tolerance in this predominantly Muslim country. Furthermore, Albania depends on Greece if its economy is not going to suffer total collapse. Several hundred thousand Albanians have crossed the border to Greece to seek employment.

In Bosnia, the Dayton accords have brought peace for now, but the situation is still precarious. Last week's violence in Mostar, when Croats attacked Muslims, demonstrates the volatility of the situation. Likewise, in the strategically located northern Bosnian city of Brcko, Serbians and Bosnian Muslims are kept apart only because of the peacekeeping efforts of the American military contingent in the area. No one can predict what will happen in Bosnia when the American forces leave in less than a year. A new round of violence should not be surprising.

In Turkey, the situation is somewhat different. This Muslim country of 62 million, does not belong to the same category of other Balkan countries which experienced communist rule for forty five years. Turkey is also more of a Middle Eastern than a Balkan country. It is going, however, through a multifaceted crisis that threatens the stability of the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. Above all, Turkey is experiencing civil war. The Turkish military is fighting Kurdish separatist guerrillas in a conflict that has led into a Vietnam-like quagmire. The established ideology of Kemal Ataturk is under serious challenge as the ruling elite, including the military, is unable to cope with increasing popular discontent. As a result of growing socio-economic hardships, millions of disillusioned Turks are seeking salvation in Islam by turning to the Islamic Refah party of Nekmettin Erbakan, who is Prime Minister since last July. Overall, the country is under semi-praetorian rule that hired public relations firms in Washington are selling to the American public as a " model democracy in the Middle East." But more and more Turks, especially in the universities, the press and a younger generation of politicians, seem to know better.

Faced with such profound crisis, the Turkish elite, let by the military which exercises critical influence in politics, is increasingly creating external diversions as a way out of the domestic impasse. Greece and the little Republic of Cyprus, the only democracies neighboring Turkey, offer such a convenient diversion. Using its military superiority, Turkey has embarked on a revisionist policy against Greece in the Aegean, while the Turkish occupation of Cyprus enters its 23rd year. As a consequence, not only the Balkans, but the Eastern Mediterranean as well are threatened with destabilization

The deteriorating situation in the Balkans is causing serious concern in Greece. Athens worries that the combination of economic chaos and ethnic minority problems plaguing its neighboring Balkan countries, will have negative effects for the whole region. This, along with the prospect of a new wave of refugees streaming to Greece, has caused Athens to seek an urgent debate of the Balkan crisis at the forthcoming ministerial meeting of the European Union on February 24. The government of Prime Minister Constantine Simitis is considering of asking the EU to adopt an emergency economic package for Albania and Bulgaria. This is of course necessary but not enough. The main stabilizer of the Balkan situation is Greece itself. It is the only country in the region that shares borders with all the southern Balkan countries. It is the only democracy in the area which also happens to be member of NATO, the European Union and the Western European Union. Greece also has an entrepreneurial class that is familiar with the Balkan markets and has already invested heavily there. As such, Greece is in the unique position to take the initiative in the Balkans in order to promote the democratic process along with economic reform and regional security. In the present crisis, Greece is offered a first class opportunity to emerge as the anchor of stability and economic development in the Balkans. If it does so, Greece will not only serve the region well but will also serve western interests quite well. Above all, Greece will serve its own national interests for it will become the preeminent regional power promoting peace, economic progress and security.

Greece, however, is faced with two constraints in assuming this pivotal role in the Balkans. One is domestic. The other is external and will require American leadership to overcome. Domestically, Greece has to put its economic house in order. Greek democracy is doing quite well as democratic institutions have been consolidated. Increasingly however, the PASOK government, whose mandate was renewed last September, is confronted with a series of economic demands from social classes who in turn are paralyzing the country with strikes. Unless there is social peace in Greece, the country will squander a unique opportunity to emerge as the key player in the Balkans. The other domestic constraint has more to do with a chronic institutional problem in the Greek foreign policy establishment. The foreign ministry is still operating under anachronistic conditions and in is dire need of reform. Balkan and Turkish specialists are extremely rare in the ministry, while the country's vital interests are tied to its relations with its neighbors. Yet, the foreign ministry is called upon to undertake bold initiatives in the Balkans. Bold initiatives, such as the quick adoption of a large humanitarian package, primarily food and medicine for Albania and Bulgaria. The present leadership at the foreign ministry is cognizant of the need of institutional reform that cannot wait any more. In the end, no one will anoint Greece as the leading Balkan power. It is up to Greece to take the initiative and it should not blame others if it fails to grasp this extraordinary opportunity.

The other constraint for Greece to pursue an active Balkan policy of stabilization is external and is imposed upon it. Turkey's revisionist, indeed expansionist policies in the Aegean, and continuing war threats, are forcing Greece to divert a significant amount of economic and human resources in confronting this external threat. In turn, this limits Greece's ability to concentrate on Balkan reconstruction. It is here where the role of the United States is crucial. Unless the Clinton administration impresses upon Turkey that it cannot threaten Greece, otherwise the flow of arms to the Turkish armed forces will be cut drastically, Greek capabilities in promoting a Balkan stabilization program will be seriously undermined. Balkan stability is in Europe's but also America's best interest. It makes no sense for Washington to allow Turkey to destabilize both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. For this appears to be the end result, while democratic Greece and an over-militarized Turkey are preparing to confront each other with American arms.

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