Sarajevo, on the 28th of June in the year ‘14, was en fête. A unique foreign delegation was coming, and the hotels were booked up; the pavements along the river were filling, the crowd’s diversity appropriate to this historically so cosmopolitan city. Could any have said exactly why they were there, or what they were looking at? Put face-to-face with History, it’s difficult to know quite where we stand. ‘The centre of the city is chaos,’ said the taxi-driver; ‘because it’s the hundred years of Gavrilo Princip and all the tourists have come.’ What did he think of the commemoration, of the gala concert that evening and of its international guests? ‘Nothing.’

The foreign tourists had their photos taken by the plaque marking the spot from where Princip fired, jostled for a view of the replica of the Archduke’s car (accurate down to the A 11 11 18 number plate, with its macabre por-tent), and watched as a few took turns to put on a replica Archduke’s jacket and hat and clamber aboard. Bosnians, who know of war what most tourists will never know, were scarce. They don’t have the luxury of a comfortable distance from their darkest memories. While the rest of the world has spent the intervening century on a superficially linear path, gradually working through the consequences of its 1914 like some monstrous set of simul-taneous equations, the Balkans seem sometimes to go in circles or to be working on an entirely different problem. ‘We don’t think very much about this commemoration,’ the receptionist at the hotel said; ‘but it is good for business.’ Like Sarajevans watching the strange antics of tourists, the Bal-kans look at the world and its concerns askew.

The Sarajevo assassination is the twentieth century’s original sin, a sym-bolic first killing of man by his fellow man that handily reduces an insolu-ble debate about causation to one clear-cut crime. It was an oddly nine-teenth century-spark for a twentieth-century war, as if the Dreadnoughts and barbed wire and machine guns needed this last piece of Ruritanian melodrama to unleash them. Never mind that the protagonists wore their costumes as uneasily as the tourists a hundred years later – the Archduke an advocate of accommodation with the Slavs and despised by the hawks in his own court; the assassins a handful of enthusiasts with antique bombs and past-sell-by-date cyanide doses whose collective flunking of their main chance was overtaken only by a bewildering set of coincidences that put Princip a yard away from the stationary Archduke. The Austrians, as if determined to simplify the overwhelming A-level essay of naval races and imperial rivalries and overbalancing alliance systems, took the assassina-tion as cause enough for war.

It was a rare moment, when the generally separate orbits of the Great Powers and the Balkans converged. They as soon went their separate ways. Caught up in the skirts of the Powers for much of the First World War, the Balkan states continued to jostle among themselves for their shares of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Versailles promised new clarity and status for those left when the tides of empire receded northwards to Vienna and southwards to Constantinople; but the reality was a continued smudging of national identi-ties, within borders that still reflected Great Power compromises rather than Woodrow Wilson’s ideals. When in his Mountain Lute the Albanians’ great poet-priest-politician Fishta referred to ‘Europe, the whore of the ages,’ that carved up Albanian lands to keep the Slavs happy, he was notionally refer-ring to the Treaty of Berlin in 1878; but he was writing forty years later when Albanian borders and sovereignty were being treated as counters in Great Power negotiations. As a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, he knew whereof he spoke. The unfinished Balkan business of the 1910s would boil over in the 1990s and continue to trouble the new millennium.

During the Second World War, external powers renewed their efforts to co-opt the Balkan states for their European manoeuvring. Intrepid British soldiers parachuted into Yugoslavia and Albania, aiming to encourage the proto-Communist partisans and their rival ‘nationalists’ into active resist-ance against German occupation. Churchill hadn’t lost his First World War enthusiasm for an attack against the central powers’ southern flank, and it seemed obvious to British planners in London and Cairo that the backward peoples of the Balkans would naturally, with the inducement of some gold and some military supplies, be ready to do their bit in the European war against fascism. But this was a misjudgement, of Balkan interests and of British influence. For Albanians, German occupation was the first (and last) time that the unnatural border with Kosovo was removed. The northern vil-lages wanted to recapture an old way of life; in the southern villages Enver Hoxha was preparing a social revolution. In neither was there any interest in stirring up the Germans who, concentrated in the few towns and main roads, weren’t restricting the Albanian pursuit of their own interests. In Yu-goslavia Tito and his Partisans fought a grim campaign of self-preservation against the Germans, but having won it they were biding their time. The German withdrawal, caused by factors external to the region, was opportu-nity rather than outcome for Tito and Hoxha, and they acted fast to take full control of their countries.

After the war, the frustrated British parachutists fell to mutual recrimina-tion, in an argument that lasted as long as the regimes they left behind. The belief that a more determined sponsorship of the nationalists would have saved the region from Communism vied with the belief that a more sincere engagement with the Communists would have given greater influence. The debate was redundant: British influence did not and could not affect what was happening in the minds and villages of the Yugoslavs and Albanians. Short of launching D-Day onto the Dalmatian Coast, it was not in British power to swing the domestic battles of the Balkans. Between 1949 and 1951 MI6 and the CIA sent infiltrators into Albania, this time to stir up resistance against Communism as part of their wider cold war. Once again the outsiders overestimated the local interest in their global cause; the infiltrations were a fiasco. (Again, the only way the British could understand this was as the re-sult of British agency – this time the perfidy of Kim Philby. The plans weren’t betrayed by a cad, but by their own ignorance and ineptness.)

The countries of the Balkans disappeared behind their curtains – Tito’s shrewd juggling of west and east and the peoples who made up his country; Hoxha’s brittle fantasy of Stalinism – until, hollowed out by the economic crises of the 1970s and the insidious realization that the west might have something after all (jeans and pop music proved more effective infiltra-tors than parachutists), they burst back into western consciousness in the 1990s. Albania’s emergence from totalitarianism was arguably closer to the eastern European pattern: the final collapse of regime credibility, a spasm of democracy that found its moment, and the cold turkey abandonment of state control for the dubious advantages of wild west frontier capitalism. Yugoslavia’s collapse was unique (although, twenty-five years later, the unravelling of the colonial settlement of the Middle East bears significant comparison): not the popular rejection of a system of politics or economics, but the scornful destruction of a dream of a country. With wilful, adolescent malice, nationalists like Milošević and Tudjman tried to exploit insecurity and frustration and economic fragility. The compromises and inconsisten-cies of the post-First World War settlement, papered over with skill and circumstance and bouts of idealism, were exposed and proved at last unsus-tainable. Perhaps 150,000 people were killed in the wars in Slovenia, Croa-tia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The Eastern European transitions were seen as verdicts on the ideological contest of the cold war. South-Eastern Europe’s chaos was a new phase in a century-old debate: the relationship between a nation defined by those who identify with it, and a political entity defined by circumstance.


‘The First World War and this anniversary would be irrelevant for Bosnia were it not for the war of the nineties,’ Belgrade academic and former dis-sident Dr Obrad Savic said on the centenary. ‘Now the First World War is being reinterpreted to suit today’s nationalist narratives.’ The geographical shape of Bosnia is a factor of the jostling between Habsburg and Otto-man Empires more than a hundred years ago. The demographic shape has older roots: the ebb and flow of Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim belief and believers, complicated by politics. In 1914 the gap between them nurtured Serbian frustration, and then assassination. In 2014 the Serbs of Bosnia are still frustrated, and the country risks stagnation. Its continued existence is the result of an international ideal once again: respect for national self-determination has been replaced by the conviction that violence cannot be allowed to redraw borders; that a multi-ethnic state is possible. The Dayton Agreement of 1995 was a determined and in itself successful measure to stop a ghastly war. Two decades later, with her Serbs continuing to obstruct Bosnia’s functioning and further development as a state, Dayton turns out to have frozen the ethnic dividing lines: it has become a restriction, scaf-folding thrown up to enable renovations for which the money ran out.

Among the international tourists milling around the assassination site on the 28th of June 2014 stood a solitary Serb. Zoran was silent, reflective; ‘I am praying,’ he said, ‘for the soul of Gavrilo Princip’. While the foreigners had their photos taken around a replica car or gathered for the EU-spon-sored peace concert by an Austrian orchestra, in their own half of the city Sarajevo’s Serbs were unveiling a statue of the assassin. The region’s Serb political and religious leaders were opening a Serbian historical theme-park a couple of hours out of Sarajevo. ‘Gavrilo Princip’s shot was a shot for freedom,’ the Serb member of Bosnia’s three-way Presidency said. ‘His shot was a prelude to what some Europeans were preparing for for years, and Serbs emerged from that war as winners.’

A century on, the international community has brought a new enthusiasm to the Balkans: in the wake of national self-determination, the fight against fascism and the fight against communism has come integration with the European Union as the dream to which all right-thinking people should aspire. For the EU this is both idealism and pragmatism: engaging more closely with the Balkans gives a better chance of tackling at source prob-lems that will in any case affect the continent. For the most part, the coun-tries of the region have responded positively: aside from occasional bouts of recalcitrance from a Serbia still fond of the link with the Russia that was part of the 1914 system of alliance and patronage, political and public feeling in favour of EU membership is generally high. And the effect of the growing relationship with the EU has been constructive, with the EU’s ambassador in each country an influential advisor and commentator, and the leverage afforded by each new milestone in the integration process an effective driver for reform. Slovenia went from civil war to EU member-ship in thirteen years; Croatia did it in eighteen, having imprisoned for cor-ruption officials at every level up to a former Prime Minister.

However, watching the day-to-day political games in capitals such as Sara-jevo and Pristina, there remains the sense that political leaders are playing the international game as much as suits them, while pursuing their own interests. The pace of EU expansion means that no political leader cur-rently in power in the next rank of likely member states will still be in power when their country finally accedes. The milestones towards the EU are temporary political capital, to be pocketed while seeking the maximum gains of money and patronage. Brussels cares more about the momentum of EU expansion than do the leaders of the countries that will benefit, and risks being held hostage by its own conditionality, hoping to keep the train moving forwards even if not everyone has paid the full fare. Watching the international engagement in Kosovo, and Bosnia, and elsewhere there re-mains the sense that the great powers were hoping to enlist the locals in their game, and have instead found themselves in a different game that they don’t fully understand.

The people of the Balkans, desperate for normality and economic oppor-tunity, and confronted with the shortcomings of their own leaders and the manoeuvres of the international community, can be forgiven for observing developments with the same uncertainty as the Sarajevans watching the plumed Archduke in his convoy. A Bosnian student named Maja was indif-ferent to the centenary. ‘The only important date is the date I was born,’ she said as she watched the foreign tourists. Spring 2014 had seen widespread protest and days of rioting from Bosnians angry at persistent economic problems and corruption. ‘The past is useless. We need to move further away from our past if we want to move forwards.’

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