Thursday, May 14, 2009

Books: Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan

I don’t know why I never enjoyed World History or Social Studies or The News when I was younger, but find it so fascinating now. The result is that, when picking up a book like Balkan Ghosts, a kind of travelogue that explains the various political crises of Eastern Europe in the 1980s through the varied histories of those countries’ vying constituencies, I constantly need to refer to maps to see how the geography fits together. Kaplan’s basic argument, deceptively simple, is that the constant political unrest over borders in the Balkans is based on each religious-ethnic group’s desire to “restore” borders to the dotted lines established when that group was at the height of its power. The natural borders of rivers and mountains won’t do; because there are a variety of conflicting historical precedents, thanks to nearly 1,000 years of rising and collapsing empires (the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Austrio-Hungarian, etc.), each constituency can construct a semi-credible argument for its cause.

The other, perhaps more insistent reason for strife is a history of poor leadership. America is filled with vying constituencies, but these are not “tribal”—each will identify first as American. That said, ours is a nation of relative wealth and comfort. If we had leaders such as Carol I, the Romanian king who escaped his own country in the dead of night with nine train cars of national art and treasures, or the Greek Papandreou, who harbored terrorist organizations that systematically did away with voices of dissent—inept and power-hungry men of breeding, or military power, or mere charisma—who destroyed our economy (*ahem-Bush-harrumph*) we would, hopefully, oust them and then more forward, together. But bad leadership in the Balkans doesn’t seem to have ever unified people across religious or ethnic borders, instead serving to deepen the rifts between factions. There is a massive problem of grudge-holding. In the same way that the Turkish government refuses to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, and some extremists deny the Holocaust, certain groups are at fault for refusing to admit that atrocious things happened in the past. That said, other groups are at fault for clinging to that past, for reenacting victimization and holding the descendants of the wrong-doers responsible for their ancestors’ cruelties.

America seems completely ahistorical in comparison to the Balkans, and this is likely a blessing in disguise. Though Kaplan writes with an incredible romanticism about crumbling palaces and Byzantine monasteries, trains without heat or food, and people who are perfectly happy to share their life history with a stranger, this is a world much more fun to read about than to live in. Reading this book made me wonder whether I had misread Gruz 200 (which doesn’t take place in the Balkans, but in the equally bleak Soviet-proper), for I at last had insight into Soviet-block desperation. The obscene nightmare of that film’s fantasy suddenly seemed highly probably. The Soviets are but one of the many fingers that stirred the boiling Balkan pot—England was another—but while Her Majesty’s role was one of distant slice-and-dice, the Soviets, through proximity and concomitant political domination, had a stronger economic impact—a negative one, of course.

1 comment:

lpcyusa said...

What It’s Like to Chill with the Most Ruthless Men in the World
Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic:
Confessions of a Female War Crimes Investigator

Retrospectively, it was all so simple, natural and matter of fact being on a boat restaurant in Belgrade, sitting with, laughing, drinking a two hundred bottle of wine and chatting about war and peace while Ratko Mladic held my hand. Mladic, a man considered the world’s most ruthless war criminal since Adolf Hitler, still at large and currently having a five million dollar bounty on his head for genocide by the international community. Yet there I was with my two best friends at the time, a former Serbian diplomat, his wife, and Ratko Mladic just chilling. There was no security, nothing you’d ordinarily expect in such circumstances. Referring to himself merely as, Sharko; this is the story of it all came about.