A Tale of Two Disasters: The Balkans and the Middle East
Yesterday and today (October 14-15) I’ve been taking part in an interesting conference at the Patriarchate of Peć, in the occupied Serbian province of Kosovo. Organized by Bishop Jovan (Ćulibrk), an old friend of Dr. Fleming’s and mine, The Balkans and the Middle East Mirroring Each Other marks the centenary of the First Balkan War and the liberation of Kosovo and Southern Serbia after four centuries of the Ottoman misrule.
The conference has brought together an eclectic group of scholars: Ambassador Darko Tanasković of the University of Belgrade, Boris Havel of the University of Zagreb, Col. Shaul Shay of BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Martin van Creveld of Tel Aviv University, Gordon Bardos of Columbia University, and myself. The proceedings were attended by Patriarch Iriney of the Serbian Orthodox Church (R) and an array of Western diplomats and military officers based in Kosovo.
On the first day Professor van Creveld caused some controversy by suggesting that there existed a significant parallel between Israel and Serbia. The former needs to give up all occupied territories, including most of East Jerusalem—he argued—just as the latter needs to give up its claim to Kosovo. Regardless of how attached both nations feel to their ancient shrines and monuments that would be left behind, van Creveld argued that “amputating the gangrenous leg” was the only way to halt the sapping of strength and resources with no end-game in sight.
Disputing van Creveld’s diagnosis, Dr. Shay said that the apt metaphor was not an amputable leg but the patient’s heart that cannot be removed without killing the patient. My own paper reflected a similar point of view. The similarities between Kosovo and the West Bank are not obvious to the uninitiated, and prima facie similarities may appear superficial: In both cases there’s a small piece of disputed real estate, rich in history, poor in everything else, and badly mismanaged by the local Muslim majority which is chronically hostile to its non-Muslim neighbors. In both cases that majority craves internationally-recognized statehood. Far more important, in my view, is the spiritual parallel, with which I closed my remarks:
Proponents of Kosovo independence scoff at the Serbs’ claim that Kosovo, with its many ancient monasteries and the site of the famous battle, represents not just any part of their country but its very heart and soul—“Serbia’s Jerusalem.” Such attitude betrays a cynical contempt for the essence of any true nation’s identity, which necessarily rests on its historical, moral and spiritual roots. Without such foundation a people ceases to be a people and becomes but a random mob. If Serbia can be haughtily deprived of her Jerusalem today, and her historical and spiritual claims are dismissed out of hand, who is to say “al-Quds” will not be demanded of Israel tomorrow as the capital of an independent Palestine? And is it not hypocritical of the United States to actively support the former while claiming to be opposed to the latter?
Turkey is the common denominator in the Balkans and the Middle East, and its return to the center stage as a regional power is a remarkable phenomenon. It is historically unprecedented for a former great power which undergoes a period of steep decline to make a comeback and reestablish its position as a major player. After the Peloponnesian War Athens was finished for all time. Following the collapse of the Western Empire, Rome has never regained its old stature and glory. After Philip II Spain declined precipitously and has remained a third-rate power ever since. The list goes on, yet Turkey appears to be an exception to the rule.
Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategy was the theme of Professor Tanasković’s presentation. He noted that at different times and in different contexts Turkey presents itself as a Mediterranean, Balkan, Middle Eastern, or NATO country, but that its most important, indeed defining feature is its Islamic character. Both the Balkans and the Middle East have been repeatedly singled out and openly named as priorities in the neo-Ottoman strategy of “Strategic Depth” as articulated by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The ultimate goal is to recreate a sphere of strictly Turkish dominance, according to Professor Tanasković. He insists that the AKP government’s neo-Ottoman strategy is not an ideological projection focused on the past. Quite the contrary, it is a constant feature of Turkish foreign policy—logical and legitimate. The Islamists are rediscovering their heritage which was interrupted by the Kemalist revolution. Neo-Ottomanism is neither good nor bad, it is a reality based on the notion that parallel to globalization, we have macro-regionalization of the world. In reality, Tanasković went on, there is no “globalization” in world politics: in a sense we are still in the 19th century, with regional powers seeking to dominance in their zones of influence. Only the US is still hoping to transcend the spatial limitations by projecting power always and everywhere.
Professor Tanaskovic concluded by saying that Turkey may have overplayed her hand following Ankara’s decision last spring to support the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. That decision has changed the strategic equation in the region, and it now exposes Turkey to the possibility of both Russia and Iran coming to view it as an adversary.
Shaul Shay opened his presentation by saying that the term “Arab Spring” is flawed. The word “tsunami,” or perhaps “earthquake,” would be more appropriate. It was destructive, unexpected, and not significantly amenable to human intervention. Nothing significant enough had happened in 2010 to enable us to say that this was the trigger for what followed. In the end, Shay argued, the Islamic Evolution proved stronger than the Tweeter Revolution. The process launched by young activists using all the resources the Internet has to offer eventually paved the way for Islamist movements. The main actors for change have been the youth, but the beneficiaries have been the Islamists—they were structured, with deep roots in society, unlike the youth who have not had time to organize. The outcomes of recent Arab uprisings have confirmed the organizational superiority and appeal of Islamist political parties in a number of countries in the Middle East. The fragile transitions from secular pro-Western dictatorships through a "democratic procedure" to the formation of Islamic regimes was a “tsunami” which has moved the tectonic plates of the Muslim societies and will provoke aftershocks that will lead to a region dominated by political Islam.
In recent years, Say concluded, we’ve seen a change in strategy used by radical Islamic organizations. Muslim Brotherhood openly seeks to establish “democracy” based upon Islamic principles. They regard liberal democracy with contempt, but they are willing to accommodate it as an avenue to power but as an avenue that runs only one way.
Historic changes taking place in both the Balkans and the Middle East are the political equivalent to the shift of tectonic plates. This is a crossroad in history and the road the nations involved take will determine our future. In the meantime we might see more Islamization there rather than Western style democracies. Where it will really lead Middle East and the rest of the world only future will tell.