Ethnic violence belies Balkans peace
Peace agreements brought the last Balkan conflict to an end more than two decades ago, but they didn't resolve ethnic tensions, which are rising to the surface again.
More than a decade after the conflict in the Balkans was brought to an end, a spate of violent incidents in the southern Balkans show that the ethnic and national tensions that erupted so disastrously in the 1990s are not a thing of the past.Skip to next paragraph
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Buses and public parks have been attacked, injuring children. Mosques and churches have been vandalized. Flags have been burned and racist slogans chanted in Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. On March 16, a Molotov cocktail was hurled at the Macedonian embassy in Pristina, the Kosovan capital.
Meanwhile, Bosnia remains hopelessly divided along ethnic lines -- it took 16 months to install a new government following elections. Strong centrifugal forces within Bosnia have prevented the move toward the closer union championed by the international community.
This year will mark 17 years since the end of the Bosnian War, 13 since Kosovo and 11 since the brief Macedonian conflict between the central government and Albanian insurgents. Peace has been restored, but it is an unsettled one. Agreements have not done away with tensions between ethnic groups, and they have left large populations unhappy with the new status quo.
A standard explanation for this situation is the “ancient hatreds” line taken by then-British Prime Minister John Major in the early 1990s, one that Mr. Major used to justify Britain's lack of active intervention in the wars of Yugoslav succession.
But Balkan experts say that while historical conflicts, or at least the most recent ones, are an important factor in the current situation in the Balkans, the machinations of local politicians and, to a lesser extent, the misguided, albeit well-meaning, interventions of the international community, are more immediate factors.
The Balkan wars were, to a great extent, lengthened by local politicians stoking nationalist sentiment and the reluctance of the international community to get involved. Outside powers eventually helped broker peace agreements, which were the least-worst options at the time. But they did not present a long-term solution to ethnic divisions in the region – particularly since politicians continue to exploit them for their own gain.
A shallow peace
The trigger for the recent outbreak in Macedonia, divided between Slavic-speaking Macedonians and Albanian Muslims, was a traditional festival kukeri festival in an ethnic-Macedonian village in which some participants appeared to be mocking Muslims.
The winter kukeri festival involves men dressing up in frightening masks or outlandish costumes to scare evil spirits away. Political incorrectness is common at such events – similar festivals in Bulgaria regularly feature people in black face. But this year, the appearance of revelers dressed as burqa-clad Muslim women has triggered substantial demonstrations, as well as at least one arson attack on a church and the stoning of a bus bound for the festival village.
There have been apparent reprisals, including the beating of ethnic-Albanian children with baseball bats on a bus and the daubing of xenophobic slogans on a mosque. A Macedonian policeman shot dead two Albanians. Some of the incidents have been blamed on provocateurs.