Like France's troubled suburbs, the Balkan war zones cannot be sealed off—or safely ignored
THE Balkans, said Otto von Bismarck, are not worth the healthy bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier. A century and a quarter after that famous brush-off, Europe's richer, smugger parts are still tempted to turn their backs on their continent's most unstable and wildest corner.
To a European Union that views itself as part of the world's elite—a huge, if rather sluggish, economic power that can be rather choosy about who it deals with—its squalid Balkan backyard is an embarrassment. Indeed, there are questions about whether it is part of Europe at all. Serious politicians in France, Germany and Austria were saying, only a decade ago, that countries with an Ottoman or Byzantine heritage—such as Romania, Bulgaria and most of ex-Yugoslavia—weren't really heirs to the glories of European civilisation.
If west Europeans feels uneasy about the Balkans, that is partly because of the blunders they have made. For all his detachment, Bismarck was a master of Balkan diplomacy, but modern Europe has lacked his touch. When old Yugoslavia broke up, it was initially seen, absurdly, as a little local difficulty which Europe could handle with no help from anyone else. Then, when the horrors began, they were dismissed as too intractable to stop.
In fact, as became clear in the final chapters of the conflicts in Bosnia—which ended in a peace agreement exactly a decade ago—and then Kosovo, Balkan wars are as easy to control as people want them to be; but they stop only when America and all the main European powers act together, instead of scoring points off one another. Now, the Balkan guns have mostly fallen silent, and the region and its queasy European friends are at another crossroads (see article). In a year's time, Kosovo may be independent. Bosnia is gradually turning into a functioning state. Montenegro may vote in a referendum to break with Serbia. The accord that saved Macedonia from civil war seems to be holding. An era of intensive care, in which Kosovo was run by Finns or Danes, and Bosnia by Austrians and Brits, may be ending.
So what does rich Europe do now? For a half-exhausted, introverted EU with many problems nearer home to worry about, it is tempting to walk away altogether, at least from the places which seem incorrigible. The Union has proved good at teaching governance to countries like Bulgaria and Romania where politicians want to learn and will get a nice prize—early membership—in return. Among the six republics of old Yugoslavia, there is only one European super-star, Slovenia; and Croatia is back on a European track after wobbling off it.
But as for the other countries of the region—all scarred by war, anarchy or criminal nationalism—a sceptic could make a decent case for writing them off. In Albania and much of ex-Yugoslavia, the forces ranged against the state—crime syndicates and armed nationalists—are often more than a match for legitimate business and politics. Government, in so far as its writ runs at all, is frequently worse than useless: customs barriers and regulations simply obstruct legal business, offer bribe opportunities for bureaucrats and abet crime.
Given that the total population of the Balkans' most problematic parts is barely 20m, and their per head income is barely a fifth of the EU average, why not just quarantine them until they start behaving like potential members of a rich, respectable club? That, in a way, is what Europe managed to do during Bosnia's horrors: the Vienna stock exchange hardly flickered as massacres occurred a couple of hours' drive away.
To find out why that is not an option, ask the British police who, with help from the UN police in Kosovo and several other countries, have just cracked a people-smuggling ring that originated in Turkey and may have spirited as many as 200,000 desperate folk (mostly from eastern Turkey) into the Union's richer places. Or consult a report by Europol, the European police agency, which has traced the activities of Balkan-based crime syndicates. Albanian gangs spirit people into Britain and Germany; guns are reaching Britain from Croatia and points south; the stolen-vehicle trade in the Netherlands is dominated by Serbs; and Chinese syndicates based in ex-Yugoslavia send illegal migrants to Finland. It was once said of the Balkans that they produce more history than can be consumed locally; it is even more true that the region is a big net exporter of crime.
Hard as things are now, they would be worse if rich Europeans tried—and inevitably failed—to seal the Balkans off. The less access the people of south-eastern Europe have to EU markets for goods and labour, the easier it will be for organised crime to tighten its grip on the region and spread mayhem elsewhere. Especially in places like Kosovo where the population is rising fast and underemployed, there is huge unspent energy which will find malign outlets unless a healthy, outward-looking economy can put idle hands to work. Putting a wall round the Balkans will have the opposite effect.
In need of a better future to bury the past
That is one reason why Europe's fate is intertwined with the Balkans. Rich Europeans cannot ignore the region, any more than wealthy citizens of France (or any other European country) can shrug off the problems of compatriots whose poverty and alien speech or faith makes them awkward neighbours.
Another reason to avoid a massive turning of backs on the Balkans is that events there can have repercussions in unexpected places, in part because of religious solidarity. Neither the French riots nor the Balkan wars were mainly the result of clashing faiths. But in this ultra-sensitive area, actions (or non-actions) by European governments send ripples round the world. Just as French mishandling of immigrant youths reverberates in Jakarta and Algiers, so the fate of Bosnia's Muslims caused rage in Malaysia and Pakistan. The effects of any new failures in the Balkans will be felt well beyond the region.
Like it or not, west Europeans must remain engaged in their squalid south-east, offering advice, money and the ultimate prize of admission to the EU club. Otherwise the woes of the Balkans will come to them, just as the French slum-dwellers have rattled nerves in the smart districts of Paris.