Greece Turns Balkan, Serbia Joins Europe in Key Votes

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Two elections took place in the Balkans on May 6, and when historians look back, I think they’ll see a tipping point: The day Serbia ceded to Greece its place as the region’s most troublesome country.

In the late 1800s, Otto von Bismarck, famously said that the next war in Europe would begin because of some “damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” Of course, he was right. This year marks the centenary of the start of the Balkan Wars in 1912, pitting Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire. The conflict served as a prelude to World War I, triggered two years later when a Serb assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo.

In a few years’ time, it may be conventional wisdom to say that the demise of the euro, or whatever else now lies ahead of Europe, was again sparked by some damned foolish thing in the Balkans. Only this time, war is unlikely and Serbia won’t be the culprit. That honor would go to mendacious Greek leaders, their statisticians and an election in which Greek voters put their country’s position in Europe at risk.

Serbia’s May 6 elections were also a milestone. In parliamentary and presidential votes, Serbs chose parties and candidates that, whatever their differences, overwhelmingly shared a vision of where the country should be heading: to European Union membership and continued economic reform.

Ultra-Nationalists Out

The ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, a fixture on the Serbian political scene for more than 20 years, failed to get enough votes to make it back into the legislature. And within three days, some of the main parties had struck a deal on the broad outlines of a new coalition government. Meanwhile, a compromise allowed Serbs in Kosovo to vote peacefully, even though Serbia utterly rejects its secession.

The Serbian Progressive Party, led by Tomislav Nikolic, became the largest in parliament, although the party alleges that electoral fraud has taken place. Nikolic was once a leader of the Serbian Radical Party, whose founder is on trial for war crimes in The Hague. But Nikolic split away in 2008, and now says he stands for European values and joining the EU.

Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialist Party and possible next prime minister, was former President Slobodan Milosevic’s wartime spokesman. Dacic came back from the political dead by jettisoning a lot of past ideology. He too signed up to a pro-EU path, and his Socialists won 15 percent of the vote on May 6, placing third after Nikolic’s Progressives and the Democratic Party that played a major role in toppling Milosevic and sending him to The Hague.

Serbia still has deep unresolved problems that can’t be wished away, including the stalemate over Kosovo and an unemployment rate slightly higher than in Greece. As interior minister in the last government, Dacic controversially had several ethnic Albanians arrested shortly before the elections, a move that may have brought him some extra votes from nationalists. Still, the country’s trajectory is increasingly clear.

Neo-Nazis In

Contrast that with Greece. As extremists were leaving the Serbian parliament, neo-Nazis were entering the one in Athens. The winners are still struggling to form a government, making a repeat election likely. Anti-Europe parties did well. Greece has also been plagued by violent unrest on the streets, something that has become rare in the Western Balkans. Today, Greece is probably the main generator of instability in the region.

That’s not just about the euro. Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund recently pointed to Greece’s relations with its historic rival Turkey, and their competition for energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean, worrying that the political turmoil in Athens could reignite tensions. “Greece’s domestic political woes may grab the headlines, but over time, the geopolitical implications of a more isolated and nationalistic Greece may be even more profound,” Lesser wrote.

Think back exactly 13 years. Belgrade was under attack from planes and missiles from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The stated reason was a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. The intervention came four years after the end of the Bosnian and Croatian wars. But, in the case of Kosovo there was a deadly serious unstated reason for intervening. This was the doomsday scenario that saw Albania and Macedonia being sucked into the conflict, as hundreds of thousands of civilians poured over their borders. Greece and Turkey -- two NATO members -- would then pile in behind on opposite sides, a scenario with echoes of the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

The modern Balkan Wars largely ended in 1999, with Serbia’s capitulation. In 2003, in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, the EU gave a firm commitment that the whole region would, when ready, join the organization. Ever since, slowly but surely, the Western Balkans have been moving toward the European mainstream.

Slovenia joined in 2004; Croatia will join in 2013; Serbia was given candidate status in March; and Montenegro should get the green light to begin accession talks in June. Kosovo has just begun the process of EU integration. Things are slower in Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia but they are all committed to integration with Europe.

Greece Rejoins Balkans

A counter-trend since the collapse of communism two decades ago has been Greece’s reintegration into the Balkans. Greek companies, and especially banks, have invested heavily in the region and Greece has played a significant role in prodding its Balkan neighbors in the right -- European -- direction. At the same time, Greeks were swept away in the 1990s by nationalistic anxiety over Macedonia, whose name they believe implies a territorial claim over the part of historical Macedonia that Greece conquered in 1912. Since 2008, Greece has blocked its neighbor’s NATO and EU accession over the issue.

During the years of the Yugoslav wars, Orthodox Christian Greeks supported their co-religionists in Serbia because they viewed the Muslim Bosniaks and mostly Muslim Kosovars through “Turkish” lenses, along the lines of “my enemy’s friend is my enemy.” Greek volunteers fought in Bosnia on the Serbian side and some participated in the capture of Srebrenica, after which some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered. (No one has alleged that any Greeks participated in the killing.)

Greece’s gradual return to the Balkan mainstream should not come as a big surprise. On the eve of World War II, Greece was just another Balkan country, little different from its then neighbors Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. It was fate that left Greece a Western country, and the other two communist, after the war.

In 1981, against the recommendation of the European Commission and for reasons of largely Cold War politics, Greece was accepted into the EU, and 20 years later it joined the euro. It wasn’t ready for either club. Had Greece been forced to meet the stringent rules for EU membership that are now being applied to the ex-communist countries of the Balkans, it would have had to undergo many more years of preparation.

We’re living with the consequences of those decisions now.

(Tim Judah is the Balkans correspondent for the Economist and the author of books on Serbia and Kosovo. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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