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The Forgotten Solution: Origins of the Balkan Union

An Atmosphere of Reconciliation: A Theory on Resolving Ethnic Conflicts Based on the Transcaucasian Conflicts

The Forgotten Solution: Origins of the Balkan Union

By Emilian Kavalski

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The perception of the common future of the different nations in Southeastern Europe was the main reason for embarking on this paper. The developments in the Balkans in the last decade, and especially during the past several months, have emphasized the lack of cooperation among the countries in the region. Moreover, they have accentuated the inability of various ethnic groups to find ways for peaceful coexistence. It is my distress and anguish over the present unfolding of the Balkan crisis that urged me to write these pages with the hope of generating a discussion on the possibility of creating a Balkan federation in the region.

Getting traction on intractable conflicts - particularly those that involve ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups with deep cultural differences between them - has always been a challenging issue. The roots of today's problems in Southeastern Europe - the inability of various nations to cooperate and the so-called historical hatred that separates them - can be found in the arrival of nationalism and its interpretation of historical events. However, the only viable solution to the conflicting Balkan issues can come from the equal participation of all groups involved in the antagonistic strife.

It is history that is traditionally blamed for the problems of the beleaguered Balkan region. But if one looks more carefully under the surface of history the forgotten roads to peaceful coexistence among the different ethnic groups in Southeastern Europe become immediately apparent. Not so long ago, just some hundred years or so, there was a strong intellectual movement in the region that espoused the ideals of federalism and unionism. It is because of this movement that the idea of a Balkan federation came forth. It is my firm belief that any attempt for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in the region will fail in the long run if it is not put in the context of the dream of a Balkan Union.


The idea of federalism in Southeastern Europe is not new to the region.(1) Some are tempted to view the ancient Hellenic, Bulgarian, and Serbian Empires as instances of this idea and the Ottoman Empire, per se, as a "federation of theocracies under the scepter of the Sultan."(2)But these assumptions are incorrect, because they misrepresent the genuinely democratic nature of the idea of a Balkan Union. It did not have as its objective the revival of any of the old regional Empires, but rather it aspired to the formation of a completely new system of government and state. In many respects the idea of a Balkan Union, as it emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, viewed the memory of the ancient Balkan monarchies as detrimental to its objectives:

But let us [the Balkan peoples] leave our sins behind, and let us lock our ancient history, on which we can look only as a source of evil and misery…The quarrels which existed between us 450 years ago, are the reason for our plight today.(3)

For the revolutionary leaders at the dawn of the anti-Ottoman struggle, the recollection of the old Balkan Empires posed a hurdle for the prosperity and security of the region. Even at this early stage, it was obvious that the peace of the Balkans depended on the ability of the different peoples to find ways for making the future their priority rather than drowning in the memory of the past. Their common destiny is what brought them together. A Balkan Union provided the only viable solution for thwarting the threat of dividing the region into belligerent camps, buttressed by any of the great powers of the day. The Balkan peoples did not wish "to substitute European…rule for that of the Porte."(4)

The first attempt to unite the struggle against the Ottoman oppressors came as early as 1789. It was very much influenced by the ideas of the French revolution, as well as the Unites States' Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776. These two events inspired Rhigas Pheraios, one of the eighteenth century Balkan revolutionaries, to dream of a time when all the subjected peoples of the Ottoman Empire would make a joint effort to cast off the shackles of captivity. For this purpose he founded "a secret revolutionary society."(5)

At this stage, the movement toward a union in the European territories of the Ottoman Empire was bolstered by the fact that still there was no distinct national consciousness developed among any of the Balkan peoples. Ethnic identity was still rudimentary and undeveloped, in spite of the existing efforts to raise national awareness in the region.

Rhigas understood the importance of keeping the fragile balance of ethnic diversity in the Balkans. He essayed to prevent the dangers of stirring separatist wars among the peoples of Southeastern Europe, and that is why he espoused the ideas of federalism. But despite Rhigas' commendable efforts and good intentions, he made the mistake of singling out the name of one of the ethnic groups and its language as the amalgamating factor for his prospective union. By designating Greek as the official language and national denominator for the proposed confederation, Rhigas made the integration virtually impossible. However weak and tenuous the ethnic identity in the region was at the time, he, and completely unintentionally set the stage for ethnic antagonism.

That is why by the early nineteenth century, there was already talk of a Balkan or Danubian federation. Both adjectives, Balkan(6) and Danubian, derive from geographical entities, which do not hold a relation to any particular ethnic or linguistic group. Their connotative neutrality was one way of avoiding the enmity between different ethnic groups. But this simple change of adjectives also came to indicate at least two other developments.

One was the development of a separate identity among the different Balkan peoples. While in the late eighteenth century there was no distinctive ethnic consciousness developing in Southeastern Europe, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century the necessity to find an ethnically detached adjective for the prospective union shows that the processes of nation-building were already establishing themselves.

The other development was related to the religious identity of the Balkan peoples. Since Christianity was the predominant religion among the European subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the anticipated Balkan Union was to include only its Christian subjects.

Our [the Balkan peoples'] salvation is in our joint uprising and in our cooperation. Turkey is our only enemy. No Christian tribe can be a friend of these thugs.(7)

Due to the circumstances in which the Balkan peoples clashed with Islam and, subsequently, because of the suffering brought on them by its proponents in the region, a backlash and intolerance towards the Muslim peoples of the Ottoman Empire was generated.(8)

The first of these two developments became conspicuous very soon and elevated the movement of Balkan federalism to a new level. The fact of the Greek independence, achieved only after the interference of the great powers, added a new dimension to the liberation movement in the Balkans. It altered the situation in the region in such a way that achieving the goal of a regional federation would only be possible after the national liberation of each of the Balkan peoples.

Yet even at this stage, the dream of a federal union in the Balkans did not fade, but established itself on a new basis and took a more mature form. After the middle of the nineteenth century there were several attempts to forge a Balkan alliance, all characterized by the desire to unite the free and independent nations of the region.

This feature is crucial to understanding the different Balkan independence movements. After Greek independence, the future Balkan Union was foreseen as an alliance of free and independent nations, abiding by the principles of equality, autonomy, and interdependence. National liberty was the stipulated condition for regional integration. This argument is developed by the Slovenian philosopher Valentin Hribar who states that "Only a sovereign nation can sovereignly abandon a portion of its sovereignty and transfer it to the international community."(9) In this way, the idea of national self-determination as a step toward a prospective Balkan Union was planted in the minds of the Balkan peoples. Nationalism was seen as the necessary prerequisite for the success of federalism. The incentive was that only independent and nationally mature countries could form a successful federation.

But alongside this train of thought, a new idea was being surreptitiously introduced: the concept of a supra-national Balkan consciousness: "let us unite…Our religion and our customs through the centuries have grown similar."(10) The notion of a common Balkan identity is a quite peculiar and interesting phenomenon for Southeastern Europe at the time. It came as an expression of the shared experience of the different ethnicities in the region as well as their common needs and expectations. Moreover, this feeling of a collective belonging came to indicate that unlike the nation in which people rallied around their common history, culture, and religion, Balkan consciousness represented a common allegiance to a system designed to accommodate wide differences.

In this way, through federalism, the fact was accentuated that among the different ethnic groups in the Balkans there were more similarities than differences. The centuries of Ottoman oppression had united the peoples of the region not only in their suffering, but also in their religious practices and the celebration of their customs and traditions. This emphasis on the collective experience of the European subjects of the Ottoman Empire had the objective of forging a Balkan consciousness as the connecting element of a prospective federation.

But this concept of a shared identity also had more immediate goals, in particular to prevent foreign influence in the region. The great-powers had already started to muscle their policies in the region, under the auspices of balance of power, and the "idea was that the Balkan peninsula should be divided into an eastern and western 'sphere of influence.'"(11) Balkan consciousness was to be the antithesis of foreign intrusion in Southeastern Europe. It was envisioned that it would provide an answer for the ethnic tensions of the region, and, when a federation of the Balkan nations was established, was to buttress the process of developing a supra-national identity for the constituent peoples. In this way, Balkan consciousness would simmer down ethnic tension and thwart foreign intrusion.

For example, the Bulgarian liberation movement was dominated by the idea of a Balkan federation. The chief objective of the Central Bulgarian Revolutionary Committee, established in 1870, was "the formation of a federation, including Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece, in which each nation would be autonomous."(12)Hence, the Bulgarian liberation movement, though national in character, was federalist in its objectives. It worked to prop up Bulgarian national consciousness, but at the same time supported the movement for the common future of the Balkan peoples.

A nation, which wants to develop and live free and independent, must be generous and refrain from taking advantage of the weaknesses of smaller nations, and impose its own will on them, against their national interests and rights. Today, in the nineteenth century in which we live, we have witnessed all illusions of slavery vanish and the historical rights…have slumped back and given way to freedom and human rights.(13)

The vision of a union of the different Balkan peoples drove them to take part in each other's national struggles. For example, there were many Bulgarians, Serbs, and Albanians who gave their life in the struggle for Greek independence. At the same time, there were many Bulgarians who joined the Serb liberation struggle.(14) In this way, the different anti-Ottoman movements in the region could be easily designated as Balkan. The revolutionary leaders spoke of the fundamental human rights of the peoples living in Southeastern Europe. They reasoned that the nation consists of individuals whose rights and freedoms should be recognized and protected because "national affiliation is a result of a conscious act by the individual."(15) In the Balkans this could happen only when the rights and freedoms of individuals from all nations in the region were recognized. Hence, the only way to alleviate the misery of oppression was by fostering a spirit of brotherhood. This provided fresh hope that the darkness of oppression could be dispersed with the joint effort of the independent Balkan nations. This is the idiosyncratic aspect of all Balkan nationalism movements. Their objective was the creation of independent national states. They were the prerequisites that would prepare the ground for the union of the independent Balkan nations. "'Union is the death of tyrants.' If the nations wake up and in thousands of voices uphold this great truth, only then will they be able to enjoy happiness and peace."(16)

This is how the idea of the establishment of a Balkan "federation of independent nationalities" was proffered.(17) The formation of a national consciousness as a step toward federalism was an important facet of the Balkan liberation movements. The dream of a union was founded on the existence of a shared consciousness among the peoples of Southeastern Europe and it is very unfortunate that this fantasy never became reality. But like all dreams, its memory is still very much alive in the subconsciousness of the Balkan peoples today. Perhaps one day it will be true so that the people of the region can achieve prosperity and overcome the national antagonism that divides them today.


For the last ten years, the small region of Southeastern Europe has been permanently present on the evening news and the front pages of most newspapers around the world. The crisis in former Yugoslavia and its subsequent break-up has crudely outlined the quagmire of Balkan politics and volatility. In the post-Cold War period, the Balkan states were left out of the main stream of integrational processes evolving in Central and Western Europe. That is how the region remained in the periphery of the big picture of European politics.

This isolation revived the old ghost of history and allowed resuscitation of ancient fears and hatreds. The so called change of 1989, when most communist regimes in Eastern Europe were ousted from power, was driven by a rejection of the overbearing, centralized dictatorship of the state. In the Balkans, an idiosyncratic aspect of this process was the search for a new identity. A majority of the people living in Southeastern Europe were expecting a new, utopian alternative to replace the old order. When this did not occur, many nations looked back to the memory of their glorious past. This substitution of reality plunged the region into its present day confusion.

It is in the aftermath of these developments that the present states of the Balkan peninsula became the epitome of a new form of nationalism - ethnocentrism - that claimed an absolute superiority based entirely on whether a person was viewed as a member of the group or alien to it. The present states of Southeastern Europe nourish a form of nationalism, which is the antithesis of the universality of human condition. Thus, by forging a strong group identity, these states promulgate ethnic, religious, or linguistic egotism that discriminates against others. This ethnocentrism brought back to life centuries old antagonisms and further discouraged regional cooperation . This has made the majority of Balkan states into what Paul Kennedy termed "swing states." They have become prone to internal institutional disorder and deterioration. The collapse of Yugoslavia is just one instance of this. Another example was the miners' march on the capital of Romania, Bucharest, earlier in the year, which shook significantly the very foundation of the Romanian establishment. In neighboring Bulgaria, the social unrest during the turbulent winter of 1996 and 1997 brought the country on the brink of civil war. In Albania, the collapse of financial pyramids during 1995 and 1996 and the subsequent backlash of violence virtually re-mapped the structure of the Albanian government. Although dormant at the moment, these processes just need a little spark to set them off again. Adding to this, the endemic showdown of force between Greece and Turkey makes the overview of Balkan politics not a very savory one.

Understandably, the solution to the Balkan questions is unthinkable without a settlement of the Yugoslav crisis. The recent Kosovo issue has emphasized that a Dayton-Peace-Accords-type of conflict regulation is not the answer. Praised as a magic wand for the troubles in Bosnia, today, just few years after its signing the Dayton Peace Accords look like an expensive stunt rather than a magic wand. Time has proven their inability to bridge the gap between different ethnic groups. Instead, the Dayton Accords recognize, uphold, and even further the division between different communities. What is going on in Kosovo today is a repetition of the case with Bosnia: the creation of a new Balkan state and with it the formation of a new nation.

Such developments can only be the source of new problems and lead to further destabilization in the region. My pessimism stems from the very nature of any foreign (non-Balkan) attempt of Southeast European conflict resolution. What is fundamentally amiss with any such attempt is not who embarks on it, but why. More often than not the very reason behind it is not a consideration for the people suffering, but protection of the interests of the parties involved in conducting the conflict regulation process. Answering a question on the issue of Bosnia, Les Aspin, chairman of US President William Clinton's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board says:

Bosnia…is a mixed case…It would be contrary to our [the United States] national security interests if the thing got out of hand and Greece ended up fighting with Turkey, for example. Or if the fighting produced a flood of refugees or a backlash so that the Muslim countries wouldn't cooperate with the West…(18)

This statement indicates a clash of approaches based on values. On the one hand we have the particular regional interests of one or several (super)powers and on the other is the self-determination movement of an ethnic group. Usually, in the end, the outcome of this collision of interests is not favorable for the Balkan region as a whole.

It is in the context of these developments that I proffer the idea of a Balkan Union as a viable approach to conflict resolution in Southeastern Europe. For one thing, in the Balkans, people as well as states were ready, at the beginning of the 1990s, to embrace the idea of their common destiny with the rest of Europe in a true European Union. As I have already indicated, the break-up of the former Communist Bloc was very much driven by the desire to stamp out the dominant position of the state as such. Looking at the complexity of the Balkan conflict, I believe that the only durable solution to the problems of Southeastern Europe is the creation of a Balkan Union. In today's multicultural world, the reliable path to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation should start from self-transcendence, both on the individual and national level. Transcendence marked by the need to overcome historical limitations. The solutions that foreign powers can offer for solving the problems in the region can never be durable in the long run unless they are supported by the Balkan nations; otherwise they would only be a source for more confrontations. Superpowers come and go in the political theater of the region, but the people who live there and call that peninsula their home, stay and have to suffer the consequences of foreign incursions. That is why a Balkan Union is the solution that the small countries of Southeastern Europe could offer towards the stabilization of the region.

The implementation of the idea of a Balkan Union would counter the clash of different interests in the region, because its realization can be achieved only through a genuine and dedicated participation of all the states in Southeastern Europe. The seeds of this cooperation have been planted for many years now, today they only need the proper cares to grow and bloom. The Balkan Union, unlike any other attempt of conflict solving in the region, is not going to be of short-term duration. This is mainly because it would involve not only governmental commitment to the process, but also the active participation of ordinary people. The driving force behind it would be not only the recognition of particular ethnic and national rights, but mainly the establishment of a civil society in the region. That is why I believe that the idea of the Balkan Union can be implemented only through the active participation of nongovernmental organizations. This is what I had in mind when I emphasized the close involvement of ordinary people. The Southeast European governments cannot create a Balkan civil society through a bill or any other document. It should be initiated by the very people who call the Balkans their home. This process would entail a change of vision as well. A turn from looking back into the past to find the explanation of contemporary issues into making the future the prerogative . This would be a difficult process, but not necessarily an impossible one.


The purpose of this paper is to raise awareness about the Balkans - a region synonymous with conflict and violence - and discuss the possibility for a peaceful coexistence in the region. At the threshold of a new millennium, the existence of the Balkan conflict is one of the confusing dimensions of modern history and a puzzle to most people. Like many other conflicts, to a great extent it had evolved out of misunderstanding and ignorance, therefore solving it is not an easy task.

Conflict solving, per se, is a process in which all sides involved attempt to piece together their tensions and conflicting issues, finding a way out of the quagmire beleaguering them. To put it another way, this is a decision-making approach, cracking the hard shell of a conflict and opening the way for penetrating deeper into its core. The regulation of conflicts is a very ingenious process, because conflict is a very creative force. It takes a lot of flexibility, knowledge and, most of all, willingness and desire to unravel the tackled issue in order to conduct it successfully.

I would like to end this paper with a short discussion of the prospects and possibilities for turning the dream of a Balkan Union into reality. The implementation of this dream depends predominantly on a mutual effort by all Southeast European states. Once generated, this mutual effort would, in a snowball fashion, clear the way for the achievement of this idea. The results from such an effort can only bring about a significant change for the better in the entire region, which is also important for the security and prosperity of Europe as a whole. Recent developments have indicated that ideas for closer cooperation and integration are not foreign to the region. More importantly, in the wake of the recent devastating natural disasters both in Turkey and Greece, the relations between the two countries have improved greatly. Moreover, the other Balkan states were the first to respond and send aid to the worst hit areas.

Another instance of regional cooperation came as a result of the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia during their Kosovo campaign in the form of a mutual attempt for restoration of Southeast European economy. These air-strikes destroyed vital infrastructure not only for Yugoslavia, but also for the entire Balkan region, effectively closing the easiest route for many Balkan states to transport goods to and from the rest of Europe. The destruction of several bridges spanning the Danube river and the virtual closure of this waterway cut a vital link to Europe for countries like Romania and Bulgaria. In the aftermath of these events, the Balkan states united their efforts at requesting compensation for their losses. One example is the joint declaration by the governments of Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania to the foreign ministers of the European Union.

This momentum should be taken advantage of to further the process of regional cooperation. The recognition of Southeast European heterogeneity is necessary for its future, and the willingness to work within it and perhaps through it is the region's destiny. It is often overlooked that the endemic separatism of Southeastern Europe has also led to a crisis in knowledge production, which hampers the social, cultural, and economic well-being of the region and has sentenced the region to its present-day "backwardness." That is why the first step should be development of cultural exchange programs and pan-Balkan meetings that would generate support for the idea of a Balkan Union. At the same time, a process of developing a common Balkan market, defense strategy, and foreign policy among the different Balkan governments should be initiated.

The main obstacle on the implementation of this idea is the residue of nationalism, or rather ethnocentrism, and, most importantly, the suspicion of the other born out of it. This is where comes the important function of nongovernmental organizations for generating public support for the idea of unionism in the region. Their main role is to work for the establishment of a civil society based on the recognition of the basic human rights of all ethnic groups and the knowledge of the common destiny of all people who live in Southeastern Europe. This would urge the reluctant Balkan governments to look more favorably on this process. A very important factor for the creation of a Balkan Union is the existence of a Balkan consciousness. This shared cultural identity, could help in transcending the limitations of ethnic and national attachment. Southeast European folklore with its symbols of cooperation and friendship undermines the nationalist ideologies of the region. In other words, the role of nongovernmental organizations is to accentuate these and help with the creation of a Balkan civil society before the formation of a united Balkan state.

The Balkan Union could only be a supra-national state, where every ethnic, religious, or linguistic group would have its own cultural infrastructure. The uniqueness of such a political formation lies in the fact that it provides answers on the individual level, because the Balkan Union could only be a democratic commonwealth of people. Being a macro-political model of conflict regulation, it would not eliminate differences, but would manage them towards peaceful coexistence.

These are some of the issues that could be a starting point for debating the future of the Balkans. There has always been a common ground for a political union among the peoples of Southeastern Europe. I claim that a prospective Balkan Union would be the only viable solution to the problems of the region, and I am convinced that the present has made this conclusion obvious.


1. Norman J. Padelford, Peace in the Balkans: The Movement Towards International Organization in the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1935), p. 1.

2. Quoted in Theodore I. Geshkoff, Balkan Union: A Road to Peace In Southeastern Europe (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), p. 14.

3. Luben Karavelov, "Balkanski poluostrov," Svoboda, 10 February 1870. Emphasis added.

4. Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 333.

5. Geshkoff, Balkan Union, p. 18.

6. For a detailed study of the linguistic, social and cultural etymology of the name "Balkan" see Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), Chapter One.

7. Luben Karavelov, Nezavisimost, 29 December 1873. Emphasis added.

8. An intolerance, which unfortunately is obvious even today, and is often quoted as a reason for the present-day Yugoslav crisis.

9. Quoted in Jacques Rupnik, "The Reawakening of European Nationalisms," Social Research, Spring 1996, vol. 63, no. 1, p. 41.

10. Ibid., p. 263. Emphasis added.

11. Stoyan Pribichevich, World Without End: The Saga of Southeastern Europe(New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), p. 122.

12. Charles and Barbara Jelavich, The Establishment of the Balkan National States, 1804-1920 (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1977), p. 138.

13. Undjieva et al.,Luben Karavelov, p. 261. Originally published in Libertatea, 20 January 1871.

14. A support for this claim are the poems which Ivan Vazov wrote for the Bulgarian volunteers who perished in the skirmishes. For example see "Zavurnalii se dobrovolec ot Serbia", "Boiat pri Gredetin" and "Pri Morava" in Ivan Vazov, Suchinenia, vol. I (Sofia: Bulgarski pisatel, 1964).

15. Andrey Ivanov, The Balkans Divided: Nationalism, Minorities and Security (Frankfurt am Mein: Peter Lang GmbH, 1996), p. 31.

16. Undjieva et al., Luben Karavelov, p. 284. Originally published in Libertatea, 11 May 1871.

17. Ibid.

18. Les Aspin, "Challenges to Values-Based Military Intervention," Peaceworks, 3, February, 1995, p. 8.

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