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Greece’s Balkan Inheritance Is Heavy

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Posted on May 16, 2012

By William Pfaff

The Balkans are historically apart from Europe for two reasons, one religious and the other political.

This has everything to do with the present crisis of Greece and the future of Greece’s membership in—or perhaps its departure from—the European Union and its eurozone. To understand what is happening, it is necessary to understand something of the past.

Geography and the Great Schism in the development of Christianity left all the Balkan peoples in the Orthodox half of the Christian world, separating them from the Western Europe of Roman Catholic and Protestant religion, the Renaissance and scientific revolution, from which the modern Enlightenment West has emerged.

Living, as they subsequently did, for greater or lesser periods of time, under the control of the Ottoman Turks, left a permanent mark on all the Balkans. None was to have a history of lasting independent self-government. The Balkans since have been haunted by resentment and by memories of lost battles to the Turks, or to lesser enemies, and by paranoid sentiments of irredentism, territorial revindication, religious conflict, clan and family vengeance.

Serbia has probably the longest record of independence, with a Serbian Patriarchate from the ninth century until defeat in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. It then remained under Ottoman control until successful insurgent upheavals in the 19th century. The modern post-Tito wars of Yugoslav succession that Serbia waged between 1991 and 2000 must be understood as the Serbs’ revenge against “the Turks.”


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Greece was different. It was never entirely independent from the time it was taken over by the Romans in the second century A.D. It then passed naturally into the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) when Rome itself fell in the fourth century, with Constantinople its new capital.

However, Greek Christians largely ran the Byzantine Empire from that time until the Ottoman Turk conquest in the 15th century. From then on, the Greeks had become a conquered people, although a privileged one.

Elias Clis, a distinguished Greek ambassador to Paris and subsequently Moscow, wrote in 2000, in an account of “Greek Statesmen during the Ottoman Period,” that the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 “left the Byzantine Empire with no direct successor, which meant that Hellenism [which is to say Greek civilization] had no instrument of political evolution and social autonomy during this period when the modern era had just begun to develop in the rest of Europe.

“For a period of nearly five centuries, the Greeks were cut off from Europe, which would have been their natural space of political evolution. Without a state of their own, they had no possibility of directly participating in the transformation of modern Europe. Even in macro-historical terms, this absence was prolonged. Other civilizations or cultures would have disappeared in far less time.”

This provides the key to Greece’s lack of a solid and effective political tradition and establishment today, able to deal with the conditions that produced today’s crisis, and to solve it.

Under Muslim Ottoman domination, all the Balkan peoples naturally took refuge in their own families, clans and religious commitments.

In Greece, national and Orthodox religious identity became virtually identified. The Ottoman method of government contributed to the result. The Empire was notably tolerant. If non-Muslim communities were willing to live peacefully under Muslim control, pay their taxes and serve as soldiers or officials of the reigning power, their religion and traditional culture was usually left alone, under leaders of their own community’s choice.

Thus the Ottoman authorities dealt with the population through the latter’s own natural organizations and leaders. Legal jurisdiction was bestowed on the heads of communities, guilds, trades and other quasi-autonomous groups, who were held accountable for good order in their communities.

This was a highly practical solution to the imperial problem but was infantilizing in effect. Throughout the Balkans, success came to be sought not through qualification, certification or individual effort, but through family ties and patronal or political clientism.

Political parties today are dynastic and function in this way. Leaders supply individual or family rewards for political support. In 1981, there were 400,000 civil servants in Greece, and today there are 800,000. This is in a total population of 11 million. Naturally, the state bureaucracy is notoriously inefficient.

The so-called European Task Force for Greece created this year by the European institutions and the IMF was expected even by the Greeks themselves to provide an efficient successor to previous international interventions in the country to create good government (going back to the Wittelsbach monarch installed under British, French and Russian supervision in 1832—the original “Troika”).

The EU Task Force was to supervise execution of the international bailout agreement, which the Greek authorities had promised to use for structural economic reforms. These have not even been started.

The time has been spent in party electoral maneuvering and power seeking that, at this writing, has left the country at the edge of default, to the indifference of many of the EU’s other members. The Balkan inheritance is heavy.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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By Harold Stassen, May 21, 2012 at 7:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Few mistakes:
  The Romans conquered Greece and Macedonia in the mid-2nd century BC, not AD.
  The Turks used the children of conquered Christian populations as Janisaries (“New Troops”) but they were taken from their families and converted to Islam.  Christians were not allowed to join the Turkish army until the 19th century, nor were they allowed to ride horses or wear certain colors (e.g. green).  The Greeks (and Armenians and Jews and Lebanese) became the middle men minorities of trade and commerce within the Turkish Empire and with Europe.  They also provided translators in dealing with the Western nations.
  You are absolutely right in saying that having clergy retarded progress; today African Americans still have clergy with political influence, to their great loss.  Imagine how upset Progressives would be if Italian-Americans were represented almost exclusively by clergy or Jews by rabbis.

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By copernicist, May 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm Link to this comment

Attn balkas at 57 am: you misunderstood why Pfaff put “the Turks” in quotation marks: although you describe accurately the “Greater Serbia” madness pursued, or used as an excuse for personal ambitions, by Milosevic, Karadzic, and ilk,  you should not overlook the fondness for killing one’s neighbours that some national groupings with a large population of resident thugs regard as an enjoyable male-bonding sport similar to that in which Americans indulge to kill people they know nothing about. But I can assure you from personal experience that Serbs of a certain age habitually used the term “Turks” to refer to the Bosnian descendants of fellow Slavs who (willingly or otherwise) were moved, during the years of Ottoman rule, from control by the Greek Orthodox communal hierarchy to that of Islam. “We have these people in our country, too”, was the disdainful remark made by a Serbian friend of ours as she dined reluctantly but extremely well in a Turkish restaurant some forty years ago, back when the fragile construction of Tito’s Yugoslavia still existed.

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By M Henri Day, May 17, 2012 at 9:22 am Link to this comment

Redteddy, thanks for your comment ! I am well aware of the fact that there are more than 300 million inhabitants of the US, rather more than the corresponding number for Greece - however, as Mr Pfaff mentioned that the latter country had some 800,000 civil servants, I felt it not irrelevant to note that the United States has a corresponding number (actually over 854,000) of persons holding top-security clearances. Now in the event that all public employees in the US hold such clearances, the per-capita ratio of Greek to US public employees would be on the order of 27 : 1, and you would be entirely justified in bringing me to order for my lack of statistical sophistication. However, according to the latest figures I have been able to find - from 2010 ( - this is hardly the case. Rather, the total number of such employees (part- and full-time) in the US is some 22,606,861 persons. The US Census Bureau listed the country’s population on 1 April that year at 308,745,538 (, which, with the help of an elementary arithmetical operation, indicates one public employee for approximately every 13.7 inhabitants. On 24 May 2011 the population of Greece was said to be 10,787,690 persons, which, when divided by Mr Pfaff’s figure of 800,000 public employees, gives us a figure of one public employee for every 13.5 inhabitants. To my uninformed mind, the difference between these two ratios is hardly significant, but you with your greater statistical expertise, may well disagree….


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By redteddy, May 17, 2012 at 7:53 am Link to this comment

@ M Henri Day

Its not equivalent.  He’s saying 800,000 out of 11 million and your comparing that
to the US that has 300 million people.

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By Marian Griffith, May 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@M Henry Day
—-[... today there are 800,000 [civil servants in Greece]...]
Well, Mr Pfaff, that would be about 50,000 less than the number of people in the United States holding top-secret clearances—-

But there are only 11 million people in Greece as opposed to over 300 million in the USA.
You can fit the entire population of Greece in New York and they would rattle having two houses for each of them (bigger families). The equivalent would be if the city of New York were to have about 1 million civil servants.

That does not diminish the fact that the USA security establishment is creating a similar lake of non-productive government jobs. It simply is not yet at the mark of 1 in every 13 Americans being paid to spy on the rest. Merely that it is slowly getting there.

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, May 16, 2012 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

«... today there are 800,000 [civil servants in Greece].» Well, Mr Pfaff, that would be about 50,000 less than the number of people in the United States holding top-secret clearances, according to the well-known Washington Post article by Dana Priest and William Arkin, «A hidden world, growing beyond control» ( But then again, very few of these are likely to be Greek Orthodox believers, so all is not yet lost….


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By MeHere, May 16, 2012 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

Good article.

That’s why it is important to understand the history of troubled nations and social groups instead of expecting them to follow our Western recipes for “success” (which are usually nothing else but a means to control them.)

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By balkas, May 16, 2012 at 7:20 am Link to this comment

but it wasn’t only the serb leadership who cooked
up for home crowd revenge, evocation of great
perils arising out of not waging ‘preventive’,
‘defensive’ wars, inaction, etc..
american, french, uk, et al 1% do that all the time.
and it works on at least 70% of the pop and in u.s
on 98%!

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By balkas, May 16, 2012 at 7:04 am Link to this comment

the diff between europeans [or even canadians]
and americans is solely in the fact that on average
30% european pop is social-communist; while in
u.s less than 1% is, i conjecture, socialist or
so, euro 1% cannot get away with so much abuse
as the american 1%.

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By balkas, May 16, 2012 at 6:57 am Link to this comment

WP: ‘the modern post-tito wars of yugoslav succession that serbia waged between
‘91-2000 must be understood as the serb revenge against “the turks” ‘.
no, william, this is not true. i know of no historian who did not acknowledge that
bosniaks [in the past often called “muslims”] were slavic [serbs and croats] or
descendants of goths, celts, welsh [or wallachs], illyrians, avars, gepids, and slavs.
serbia’s war of ‘92-95 against bosniaks, and bosnian serbs/croats was a war of
revenge, but not against turks, but against slavs who refused to remain in greater
the wars against croatia and bosnia were waged primarily in order to set up a greater
serbia that wld encompass 1 to 2 thirds of croatia and about 70% or more of bosnia.
no country, or, rather, a leadership ever wages a war solely to avenge past wrongs
crimes, etc. 
but even ‘religions’ have played a bigger role in serb wars than the desire for revenge.
as for so-called yugoslav war against slovenia it seemed it was waged for utter
foolishness or as a test to see how wld europe react to that totally needless
and serbia was not disappointed about its reaction!

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By PatrickHenry, May 16, 2012 at 3:30 am Link to this comment

I hope the Greeks tell the International banks to pound sand just like the Icelanders did.

The ‘people’ will be better off for it.

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