Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.12.14

Lessons learned from the tragedy of the Balkans

The region and its people have the misfortune of living where empires collide

the Japan Times on November 30, 2022


BELGRADE, SERBIA – The Balkan Peninsula is a destination that I have always wished to visit as the region has historically faced threats from three different major powers: the German or West European Catholic forces from the northwest; Russia from the northeast; and the Islamic Ottoman Empire from the south.

Sadly, it has been a corridor for aggression and carnage for more than two millennia.

At the time of the writing of this commentary, I was visiting Serbia after spending a night in Moldova. Although being a regional power located at the center of the Balkan Peninsula, Serbia’s geopolitical position has been one of tragedy and misfortune. In fact, the former Serbian Orthodox kingdom has been at the crossroads of these east-west and north-south invasion routes since ancient times, when empires and kingdoms passed through as they vied for regional or global hegemony.

Overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers from the walls of the ancient fortress in Belgrade, I could keenly feel the weight of Serbia’s glorious, yet tragic history of more than 2,000 years.

Geopolitics-wise, most intriguing to the Japanese mind is the issue of land borders. Sharing such boundaries with a friendly neighbor could and should be beneficial: The people in both countries benefit from the movement of people and goods between their two nations. When the neighbor is hostile, however, the exact opposite is true. The traffic will virtually stop, and in the worst case, your neighbor may suddenly launch a direct military attack against you.

Nevertheless, it is fortunate for countries that have direct access to the sea, giving them alternative trade routes via their ports. In this sense, there is no country more unfortunate than Serbia, which is landlocked.

That said, all geopolitics is local and the situation, for example, is very different in Moldova, which, like Serbia, is also landlocked. Moldova maintains cordial ties with both Romania and Ukraine. Although there is a de facto “independent” state in eastern Moldova, Transnistria, no U.N. member state recognizes it. There are power plants that have supplied electricity since the Soviet era and a large concentration of arms and ammunition, where some 1,500 Russian troops are reportedly stationed.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Moldovans are living on a knife’s edge, being so close to the conflict. When I arrived in Chisinau on Nov. 23, the capital of Moldova was in chaos with a major power outage that even stopped the city’s traffic signals. I was told that the Russian’s carried out missile strikes the same day on the Ukrainian power grid, which in turn caused a major blackout in Moldova. Fortunately, the power was restored the next day.

The Moldovan economy and society have been hit hard over the past few years, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic and then further with the Ukrainian war and the subsequent influx of refugees. Russia has cut gas supplies to Moldova in half and raised prices dramatically, causing fuel and gasoline costs to skyrocket. Moldova still has chronic power shortages, but a senior Moldovan official told me, “Thankfully, Ukraine is protecting Moldova.”

Let us return to the subject of Serbia. It is still fresh in the collective-global memory that Serbia was criticized by the international community for the Kosovo conflict. However, the more I learned in Belgrade about Serbia’s history, the more I realized that Serbs have been at the mercy of the complicated and often bizarre history of the Balkans.

Without fear of misinterpretation, it is not too difficult for me to imagine that many Serbs may feel that, from the viewpoint of Christianity as a whole, Serbia has defended Europe’s Christian communities, especially the Catholics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Central Europe, against the powerful military forces of the Ottoman Empire and the expansion of Islam.

Had the Kingdom of Serbia not fought desperately on the front lines from medieval times, the Ottoman’s empire might have expanded from Austria-Hungary to as far away as the Germanic countries to the north and even France. I told myself that there may be some truth to the sentiment, although it is the narrative that the Serbians tell themselves and is by no means supported by the Kosovan Muslim community.

Sitting in Belgrade and thinking back on the history of the wars in the region, I came to my new realization: Conflicts that involve the crossing of land borders are often zero-sum games with no easy win-win solutions. Under military pressures from the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs withdrew to the north, when the Ottomans relocated Albanians into Kosovo, taking advantage of the power vacuum. The land of Kosovo had historically been heavily Serbian for centuries but, at the same time, it is and will continue to be the land for Muslims.

This makes it extremely difficult for us to transform such conflicts into a nonzero-sum game. When dictatorial decision-makers seek a prompt and perfect solution, they often end up with tragedies.

This is basically the same dynamic that applies not only to Kosovo, but also to the Palestinian issue, tribal conflicts in Africa and elsewhere. My trip to Moldova and Serbia was another opportunity to reaffirm some of the basic rules of geopolitics: the fragility of land borders and that history can be unfair.