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.”
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 www.williampfaff.com.
© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.