Some Dreamers of the Impossible Dream

Is it possible that the various ethnic groups in the Balkans might finally be in the process of overcoming the region’s fractious history?


Lake Ohrid, in Macedonia, is one of the oldest and deepest bodies of water in Europe.
James Thomas Snyder

The late-model Audi, its left rear-view mirror smashed, surged past a puttering Zastava on a dark, lonely road outside Struga, Macedonia. The driver, a boisterous Serb named Aleksandr, talked loudly and blasted pop music by Ceca, the wife of the Serb war criminal universally known as Arkan (Željko Ražnatovi). It was small comfort to be up front, rather than squashed by the three passengers already in the back seat.

Aleksandr boasted that he was taking us to “the best club” in neighboring Ohrid. Fearful it would be a strip bar populated by trafficked girls from the region, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into after Aleksandr cornered me halfway to dinner at the hotel and insisted that I join him and his friends.

I was relieved to learn that the club was a sedate restaurant with the local equivalent of a mariachi band. Four men (two guitarists, a fiddler and an accordionist) played old Balkan folk songs for hire. An elated Aleksandr quickly ordered a round of potent rakia brandy, and joined the players in the performance.

I was happy to see acquaintances from the conference I was attending in Struga: a Bulgarian doctoral student, the Macedonian foreign ministry’s chef de cabinet, a Croatian official, an Albanian member of parliament and a Greek brigadier general. I had a couple of brandies with them, relaxed and began to enjoy myself.

Most of the patrons knew each other because they had piled onto a bus together on their way to the NATO summit in Istanbul in 2004—an experience they remember fondly if they remember it at all; by most accounts it was well-liquored. In Istanbul they had advocated for NATO membership for their countries, and they were continuing their activities at the conference.

The Republic Formerly Known as Macedonia

Macedonia is one of the former Yugoslav republics. I note this ostensibly obvious fact because, like many things in the Balkans, it is in contention. Maps of the tiny country of two million often label it “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” and all NATO publications attach an asterisk that notes “Turkey recognizes the Republic of Macedonia by its constitutional name.”

Greece does not recognize it, primarily because the Greeks have an old historical claim to the region. Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, spread Hellenic culture from here to the Hindu Kush during the fourth century before Christ. More darkly, Athens worries that since its northernmost region is named Macedonia, the locals might attempt to claim a Greater Macedonia.

This is perhaps not as absurd as it sounds, given more recent attempts to create a Greater Serbia and a Greater Albania. Moreover, it is an article of faith among many Greeks that an essential heartland of ancient Greece has been somehow excised from the body politic.

As the rest of us have been preoccupied by other challenges, the splintering of Yugoslavia is almost complete. Montenegro achieved a peaceful secession from Serbia, while Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia are all independent. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also independent, but still shattered and governed under a virtual European Union protectorate.

Serbia is alone and embittered over the loss of Kosovo, which holds the final answer to the ultimate question of the Balkans. That is where Albanians and Serbs still kill one other, while Belgrade inches cautiously toward wider autonomy for its former province. NATO peacekeepers will likely remain there long after U.S. forces leave Afghanistan.

My NATO colleagues say, without irony, that young people are the future in the Balkans. They are more likely to be educated, Western-oriented, liberal and optimistic. Their generation also provides the energy necessary to overcome decades of political inertia. They seem less attached to history, despite the fact the recent conflicts mirror their grandparents’ memories of the Balkan Wars that led to World War I.

That energy was certainly on display as Aleksandr sang. He knew every song. They were native to Macedonia, but everyone at the table seemed to know them. Ana, the Macedonian Foreign Ministry official, sat on my left, picking at her food when not dragging on a cigarette. She expressed feminist contempt for these old folk tunes. “This is an ode to the beauty of the Macedonian woman,” she explained for my benefit, stubbing out a butt. “This one now is about Maria, who broke my heart,” she said about another, making a face.

The mix of Balkan grammar mashed into English made me feel as if I were listening through a lead pipe.

That did not deter Aleksandr in the slightest. A big, effusive character, he crooned, and the Greek brigadier whistled, and the Albanian parliamentarian joined in on a drum passed around by the band. The music was usually in a low register and the language was delicate. Language is the portal to any culture, and I simply could not feel it the way everyone else did. But the quiet Bulgarian doctoral student told me from across the table that even for her, the music and words raised the hair on her head.

Before I knew it, Aleksandr had his arms around the Croat and they were belting out another song together. The Greek brigadier, sitting on the other side of me from Ana, jabbed me in the ribs and said, “Look at them! Ten years ago, they were ready to kill each other!”

West Meets Eastern Europe

This was very much the unspoken theme of my visit. It was 2006, and I was in Macedonia for a conference to talk about regional cooperation, the yin of the Balkan yang—the centripetal force of political order and integration pressing against the centrifugal force of ethnic strife and disintegration. More than six decades ago, the statesman Robert Schuman wrote about how European institutions could repair what centuries of war had rent across the continent. But it was up to these people around this table to make that happen in a new region emerging from conflict and institutional collapse.

The conference was stupefying at times; the mix of Balkan grammar mashed into English made me feel as if I were listening through a lead pipe. But it was also fantastically idealistic and optimistic, a counterhistorical experiment operating entirely against the conventional wisdom contained in Robert Kaplan’s pessimistic Balkan Ghosts.

I carried my own travelogue of the former Yugoslavia, the tome Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Seventy-odd years after its publication, it vividly described what I was seeing, and her experiences as she traveled with her husband and Yugoslav friends across the region during the 1930s mirrored mine. The coincidences were so striking that I started bringing the book with me on social outings; and, without prompting, my companions would hold up the volume as they discussed the history and prospects of the region—just as West and her companions had done with volumes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Earlier in the day we walked through Ohrid, exploring St. Sofia, a Byzantine church that the Ottomans had converted to a mosque before Christians knocked over its minaret and reconsecrated it. We passed the country’s best archaeology museum on the way to the Church of Plaosnik on a high overlook, a site that dates to the Roman era. West describes the Orthodox church as a place where the priests understand magic, and it was easy to see why.

We walked from there down to the small, 1,000-year-old Byzantine Church of St. John, which is perched on a promontory with a dramatic view of Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest and deepest bodies of water in Europe. To the brigadier’s delight, he found a Greek family performing a baptism in the tiny shrine. He insisted I witness this event and shoved me inside.

The family was packed into the narrow sanctuary, and the infant was passed around with a perplexed look on his face. Naked but for a light cloth, the baby was held by the priest who dripped water from his hand onto the child’s head. The family giggled at the baby’s reaction. Then he was handed to the godfather for a blessing. The room was dark but seemed to glow and, despite the close quarters, the crowd was perfectly quiet.

Leaving in the sunlight, the family pressed sweets on the buoyant brigadier to share with us in celebration. This serendipitous encounter seemed a latter-day incarnation of West’s experience on the same spot, when she stumbled across a wedding, the fields covered by well-wishers and people paddling boats around the promontory, “singing ecstatically.”

Greek to Me

History, like life, cannot be expunged from the landscape. Visiting a traditional print shop in Ohrid, the Greek brigadier seized on a few lines by Grigor Parlichev, a 19th-century poet, as proof of the influence of Greece in Macedonia. This is a delicate thing to assert, and the brigadier was anything but delicate.

“He was Greek!” he insisted.

“But he was born in Ohrid,” asserted Biljana, a tiny but willful Macedonian college student who sparred with the brigadier all afternoon. “He is Macedonian.”

“But he wrote in Greek!” the general roared. “He was Greek!”

To appreciate the general’s ardor, it helps to know that Ohrid claims to be the cradle of the Macedonian language. Statues of St. Clement, the local monk and patron saint who developed and propagated the Cyrillic alphabet among the Slavs, stand overlooking Lake Ohrid. Cyrillic is based on the Greek alphabet, inserting new characters for complicated diphthongs and other sounds in Old Slavonic that are not present in Greek.

It may not matter that Parlichev was born in Ohrid under the Ottoman Empire and considered himself Bulgarian. Macedonia alone has enough history, language and culture to fuel a dozen arguments about the claim to an old poet. Hellenic influence is manifest, and the Turks dominated the Balkans for centuries. The French fought through here during World War I, and German Navy tugs are still sunk at the bottom of Lake Ohrid. The Bulgarians predominated for a time and share the Cyrillic alphabet.

The city of Ohrid, on the eastern shore of Lake Ohrid, is a cultural-historical center and summer tourist destination.
James Thomas Snyder

Macedonia’s large Albanian minority speaks a language that has nothing in common with any other language in Europe. Turks live here too, as do the Roma Gypsies, and both have their own languages that influence the others.

None of that deterred Biljana and the brigadier, who argued all afternoon. But by the end of the day, the general was trying to fix Biljana up with his son, a recently commissioned air force officer, on her next trip to Greece.

If politics is like playing three-dimensional chess, then Balkan politics is like playing three concurrent games of three-dimensional chess where all the pieces are interchangeable. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the region, to take the differences as inherent and unchanging, and conflict as an inevitable outcome of those dissimilarities. But all human conflict is political, and all politics is choice; and with choice, we have control.

Playing Three-Dimensional Chess

This is captured in a scene in Skopje 70 years ago that West describes in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. She watches as Albanians, Macedonians, Turks and Gypsies all go about their afternoon rituals—walks, dances, prayer, festivals—together but separate in their own customs. Her reverie is interrupted by Gerda, the shrewish wife of her guide Constantine, and the sentiments expressed are the difference between the hedgehog and the fox, between the cosmopolitan and the pure, between fascism and democracy, between the past and the future:

“‘I do not understand you [Gerda said]; you go on saying what a beautiful country this is, and you must know perfectly well that there is no order here, no culture, but only a mishmash of different peoples who are all quite primitive and low. Why do you do that?’

“[West] said wearily, ‘But it’s precisely because there are so many different peoples that Yugoslavia is so interesting. So many of these peoples have remarkable qualities, and it is fascinating to see whether they can be organized into an orderly state.’

The people I met in Macedonia seemed to recognize that they have to live with one another. And so must we all.

“‘How can you make an orderly state out of so many peoples?’ [Gerda] asked. ‘They should all be driven out.’”

Then as now, it was extraordinarily compelling to see these people making the effort to organize themselves into an orderly state. As in a marriage, they were choosing to work together, to get along, to see past their differences and find their common humanity because they recognized a better future was only possible in that choice. Their work was an individual act of political will, multiplied many times, to take themselves and their countries toward a world that they are imagining and creating for themselves.

The Art of the Impossible

Since that bus trip to Istanbul almost a decade ago, many of the Balkan states have been stunningly, even miraculously successful. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Albania have all joined NATO, and the first three joined the European Union, as well. Macedonia qualified for NATO membership, too, but was kept out of the alliance by Greece.

Serbia joined the NATO Partnership for Peace, an extraordinary achievement. And with the arrests and extraditions of the war criminals Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladic, Serbia is two steps closer to entering the European Union itself. For these dreamers, politics is—in Václav Havel’s words—truly the art of the impossible.

None of that kept Aleksandr, pink and perspiring after rounds of rakia and song, from debating the Albanian parliamentarian about whether a particular Kosovar Albanian was a terrorist and trying to dragoon me into his argument. But he was arguing, not fighting.

Watching these friends—Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Albanians, Greeks, Macedonians—I thought they might just be in the process of loosening the bonds of history and tightening the bonds of fellowship at the same time. Is that possible?

They seemed to recognize, perhaps as West did all those years ago, that there was simply no other way out. They were stuck. They’d have to live with one another. And so must we all.

James Snyder is a former member of the NATO international staff. This article is adapted from his book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Names have been changed to protect the identities of those who spoke with the author.