The Balkans seem to have an odd way of suddenly grabbing the world’s attention and then quietly fading into the background of global affairs. In the early 20th century, the region was known as Europe’s “powderkeg,” and it was there where the opening shots of World War I were fired–to be precise, the shots which killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Again in the late 2000s, the peninsula became a hotbed of conflict as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia and roiling ethnic and religious tensions.
So what exactly are the Balkans up to now, and what has led them there? And, perhaps a more selfish question: why should we, in North America, care about a collection of small countries in Southeastern Europe?
We should care because, as the time this article is being written, none of the Balkans countries, with the exceptions of Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania (though the latter is not always considered part of the region) are part of the EU. Most have applied for membership, though accession negotiations have only begun for two, namely Montenegro and Serbia.
Okay, so what? None of these nations have particularly large economies, nor do they have much international political leverage. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still recovering from its devastating war in the 1990s and its accompanying atrocities; Kosovo has limited international recognition; and I would not be particularly surprised if many adults with university degrees couldn’t point to Albania on a map.
To understand why we should care about the Balkans, let’s rewind a bit and move to the North. Romania, a close neighbor to the Balkans nations, was the only U.S.S.R. country whose democratic revolution progressed violently (the authoritarian Communist leader of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his wife Elena were both executed following a quick kangaroo court). As a result, Romania suffered immensely during the 1990s. However, during the early 2000s, the nation had one of the highest economic growth rates in Europe. At the end of 2013, The Economist reported that Romanian wages were rising quicker than those in the U.K. and unemployment was lower than in that country. Romania’s service industry has been booming in recent years, and it is a net exporter of energy. The road has been (much like the streets of Montreal) filled with potholes and bumps–as evidenced by the recent protests in the capital of Bucharest–but Romania is certainly on the right road.
While success in Romania does not necessarily indicate future success in its neighbors to the South, its marvelous recovery certainly offers hope to those countries, which also had a rough go of it at the end of the last millennium. And the Balkans have their own achievements of which to be proud. In 2007, Reuters reported that by 2020, Bosnia and Herzegovina would have the third highest tourism growth rate in the world. Albania, which suffered from its own civil war in 1997, now offers its citizens free health care and primary and secondary education, and its economy is also dominated by the service sector. Serbia, meanwhile, despite the continuing dispute over Kosovo, ranks higher than Romania in terms of social progress, according to the Social Progress Imperative’s 2015 index.
What we see here, then, are not backwards, underdeveloped nations, but countries which are making fairly remarkable recoveries from devastating conflicts. It would be unwise for one’s mind to immediately jump to “genocide” when one hears Bosnia, or “world war” when one hears Serbia. Nobody expects these nations to become superpowers, but that does not mean they should be ignored or written off as European anomalies. These are nations that not only have great economic potential, but have much to offer the rest of Europe in the way of culture. Up until fairly recently, control over the peninsula would jump from power to power fairly often, both Eastern and Western ones. As a result, Balkans culture is a rich amalgamation of multiple heritages. Many of the countries have sizable populations of both Muslims and Christians, with other religious and ethnic minorities as well. While in the past ethnic diversity has led to conflict in the region, it delivers enormous benefits to these nations culturally, and potentially physically too.
The Balkans may be quiet, but they are certainly not still. The EU, and indeed the whole world, should mind them.