Europeanisation of the Balkans?

The historic Europeanisation of the Balkans has resulted in the development of a renewed political landscape.

Bulgarian Romas
Muslims in Bulgaria are represented by the MRF party that holds 37 out of the 240 seat unicamreal parliament  [EPA]

Leon Trotsky, the most prominent figure of the Russian Revolution of 1917 after Lenin, was sent to cover the Balkan War as a war correspondent by the Russian newspaper Kievskaya Misl. In the Fall of 1912, Trotsky entered the areas populated by Muslims after the retreat of the Ottoman armies and was shocked by the massacres:

“[T]he komitadjis (Bulgarian/Serbian rebels) began their work the moment the sky grew dark. They broke into Turkish and Albanian homes and did the same thing, time and again: Stole and slaughtered. Skopje has 60,000 inhabitants, half of whom are Albanians and Turks. Some of them had fled, but most of there were still there. And they were now victims to the nightly bloodbaths.”

While Trotsky had expected to report the victories of the Slav armies, after seeing the brutal massacres he decided to return to Russia: “I had no strength to endure the atmosphere any longer; I couldn’t breathe. My political interest and enormous moral curiosity to see what was going on was gone, vanished. All that remained was the wish to get away as fast as possible.”

The forgotten frontier: The Balkans

The tragedy and sufferings experienced by the Muslims during the Balkan Wars was not an exception in the last two centuries. In the course of the century between the Greek War of Independence and World War I (1821-1918), 5.5 million Ottoman Muslims lost their lives and another 5 million became refugees.

Although this tragedy was Europe’s largest loss of life and emigration since the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, it has been largely disregarded by European press and intellectuals.

In European orientalist literature, the Balkans were regarded as the irrational and violent “other” under Ottoman rule, and often contrasted with the peaceful and democratic West. Orientalists invented the term Balkanisation to describe the division of a state into smaller states that are hostile towards each other.

Balkanisation is also used pejoratively as a synonym of the primitive, the backwards and the barbarian. During the last two decades, the flowing number of immigrants and the multicultural environment in European metropolises have been labeled as the ‘Balkanisation’ of Europe.  

On the other hand, another process, the Europeanisation of the Balkans generated great human tragedies for Balkan societies. What happened during the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire was the replacement of the imperial paradigm that encouraged cultural heterogeneity and tolerance with the new European paradigm of the nation-state.

Indeed, the importation of European type of nationalism to the Balkans necessitated the transformation of the heterogeneous imperial space inhabited different ethnic and religious groups into a homogenous national homeland and therefore the ethnic-cleansing of “unwanted” minorities.  

As a result of this Europeanisation of the Balkans, the percentage of Muslims in the region decreased from 43 per cent to 12 per cent during the past 150 years. Although some of the 8 million Muslims in the Balkans live in their independent states in Bosnia, Albania and Kosova today, Muslim minorities in Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia still face discriminatory policies and persecution.

The Balkan nation-states have considered their Muslim minorities as the ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’ legacies of the despised Ottoman past. Hence, ruling elites have sought to either assimilate these ‘alien’ and ‘dangerous’ elements, or to get rid of them by forcing a mass exodus to Turkey.

Muslims of Bulgaria: The other or one of us?

Muslims in Bulgaria, composed of Turks, Pomaks (Bulgarian speaking Muslims) and Muslim Romanies (Muslim Gypsies) have been subjected to an assimilation campaign in the past five decades which has been termed as a modernising “regenerative process” by the Bulgarian state. During the 1980s, the communist regime forced Muslims to abandon their religion, traditions, language, and even their names.

With the collapse of communism and the emergence of democracy, Muslims gained their cultural, political and education rights. They were represented by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which is the third largest party in the Parliament, holding 37 seats out of 240. Especially in the 2000s, the MRF became a coalition partner in different governments and played an important role in the reconciliation of different ethnic and religious groups.

In recent years however, Bulgaria experienced the rise chauvinistic nationalism of ATAKA (‘attack’) Party, similar to such groups in Austria and France which employ offensive stances against minorities.

ATAKA’s leader Volen Siderov, who gained popularity on account of his television talk show, announced that his party’s nationalism was aimed at ‘the Turkification of Bulgaria’. Moreover, Siderov criticised the coalition governments including the MRF and emphasised that ATAKA “would not allow the Prime Minister to put fezzes (Ottoman hat) back on Bulgarian heads.”

Recently, a traffic accident in a small Bulgarian town where Bulgarians and Roma live together caused violent protests in major cities that targeted minorities. Protesters said that “we are marching against all parasite communities”, and carried banners of “Gypsy terror: How long will it take, how long we will be quiet!”

ATAKA’s leader, Siderov, who is running in the presidential elections scheduled for October 23, participated in the protests rallies and called the dismantlement of “Gypsy ghettos” and the formation of militias. The recent events revealed that the manipulation of the fragile political balance could have disastrous results for Bulgaria.

Bulgaria and the EU should not let the chauvinist parties like ATAKA free to incite ethnic and religious hatred that would be harmful for minorities.

Dr Behlul Ozkan currently teaches at Mamara University in Istanbul. His book, From the Abode of Islam to Turkish Vatan will be published by Yale University Press in 2012.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.