The Balkans: Old Xenophobia, New Threats – OpEd



The recent developments in the Balkans reflect the fact that dark clouds of xenophobia are blowing over the Peninsula. The ongoing bilateral relations of Greece with Turkey are seriously damaged in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue on reaching a final comprehensive agreement on the normalization of relations between them seems to be at a crossroads. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, based on the Dayton Peace Accord, seems to have ended the war, but the country is still far from a lasting and democratic peace.

The procedures initiated between Albania and Greece for a series of agreements have been interrupted, and from time to time symptoms of a foretold crisis reappear. The complex crisis between Montenegro and Serbia is only escalating without any way out. The decision by the Turkish Court to turn the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque has revived one of the deepest historical problems, that of the historical inter-religious relations between Orthodoxy and Islam in the Balkans.

Meanwhile, ethnic minorities among the Balkan countries are challenged by various problems, varying from their non-recognition by the countries where they previously belonged politically, to the affirmation of their ethno-cultural and socio-economic values of identity. Around this volatile situation are revolving very contradictory geopolitical influences and a face-off between the West and the East, whose intersections over the Balkans add unpredictable tectonics to the region. While carefully observed, the complex situation in the Balkans has awakened old xenophobia and spurred new ones. The growing trend of xenophobia in the Balkans has many sources and causes and is diversified in different countries. But what unites all these xenophobes is the great danger that they carry for the entire Balkans, Europe and beyond.

What is a xenophobia

There are many definitions of xenophobia. All of these definitions revolve around the consideration of xenophobia as a set of emotional, psychological and ideological conditions that include hatred, fear and enmity between different ethno-cultural, national, political, religious, racial groups that together contribute to the deterioration of relations between peoples, religious communities, ethnic and cultural minorities, different social categories, interest groups, families, neighbors, and even ordinary individuals of different origins. (“Definition of XENOPHOBIA”. Retrieved 2019-04-22).

In the Balkans, the phenomena of xenophobia have sometimes decreased, and other times increased, but it has never been extinguished. Although xenophobia is an old phenomenon in the Balkans, it can pose new dangers if it is not considered and treated with the apparent attention and care.

In the Balkan Peninsula xenophobia holds to this day the problematic historical recurrences, the repeated challenges of the past that are still unresolved, wrong decisions, unfinished or half-finished settlements between states in a bilateral format, handled regionally and internationally, the differences of deep and artificially driven within ethnic, cultural and religious elements.  Differences in educational levels and economic and social standards, integration and infrastructure fragmentation, political crises, and diplomatic failures as well as rival strategic, geopolitical, geo-economic and geo-cultural influences of the great powers from the West and East.

More than a garden between Euro-Atlantic and Euro-Asian diversity, the Balkans resembles that of a torn gate that sometimes opens from the West and sometimes from the East, without being oriented in a long-term and sustainable way. (Wimmer, Andreas (1997). “Explaining xenophobia and racism: A critical review of current research approaches”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 20 (1): 17. doi:10.1080/01419870.1997.9993946).  

Xenophobia rooted into Government institutions

The highest and most dangerous degree of xenophobia is when this menace appears at the level of interstate relations. We say this because states have been and remain the strongest, most resilient, and conservative actors in the system and in international relations. States are complex entities that encompass the totality of values, identities, institutions, capacity of peoples and countries, which are recognized and respected by international law and international relations.

This makes states to become positive actors when they uphold and respect the democratic theory of peace. But it also makes them dangerous actors when they ignore or even violate this theory, for reasons of narrow interests within the state, government or even their leaders’ interests.

The Balkans are still suffering from problematic relations between the states. When these relations are compounded by historical recurrences, inferiority complex or superiority, from mixed and complex prejudices they take the form of state xenophobia. This form of xenophobia causes states to feel complex fears, hatred, and pathological hostility between them. This xenophobia originates primarily from xenophobia between peoples, is transmitted to state levels, is transmitted between states, and re-emerges widely as a deteriorating relationship between peoples.

In this situation are encountered currently the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. For well-known historical reasons, but especially due to the political developments that took place after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the former Yugoslav Federation, the adoption of the policies of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic against Kosovo, and its people; from June 1999, Kosovo seceded from Serbia and after a decade secured and established its independence.    

Following its declaration of independence, the Independent and Sovereign State of Kosovo has been recognized by the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and more than 100 United Nations member states. Meanwhile, Serbia not only refuses to recognize the State of Kosovo but continues to consider it in its constitution as its province. Based on this constitutional definition, Serbia builds all its policies towards Kosovo, direct and indirect obstructive policies. This set of old historical policies applied to new realities characterizes the Serbian legacy and its complexity of colonial superiority over Kosovo, which keeps alive and encourages all the xenophobes of the past while turning them into state policies. (

On the other hand, the new state of Kosovo carries a series of complexities to Serbia, a country that had colonized it for a century. The complexes of the former colonized colonies and peoples are well known in the world deemed as inferiority complexes. They are complex, deep, and very resistant to time and change. Thus, it is these colonial complexities that have significantly increased Kosovo’s xenophobia against Serbia. The result of this xenophobic increase was the strong reactions among some governments in Kosovo to impose tariff measures against trade with Serbia, have prompted the blocking of a series of agreements signed between both parties and many other actions that have jammed the dialogue between the two countries.  (“Kosovo Slaps 100 Percent Tariffs On Serbia, Bosnia To ‘Defend Vital Interest'”. 21 November 2018).  

Xenophobia characteristics are rampant between Serbia and Kosovo, with deep roots among the Albanian and Serb peoples and, unfortunately, have been transferred to the state levels and institutions. Xenophobes are the most dangerous diseases in interstate relations. They increase mistrust, instill fear between states, increase hatred between themselves and their respective peoples, and produce animosity that threatens peace, security, stability, and economic prosperity within states, encompass relations between themselves and their neighboring nations, and the region as a whole. Like any pandemic, xenophobia among states is vulnerable to being spread rapidly, poisoning the climate of good neighborly and peaceful relations and stability throughout the Balkans. 

Xenophobia with ethnic bases

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia after the 1990s has untied, resolved the political context of the Western Balkans, but still leaves many ethnic heritage issues open, that are unresolved or partially resolved. This is due to the fact that the conflict and wars in the former Yugoslavia were concocted for political and national interests, but at their core meant the divisions and reorganizations of ethnic communities to accommodate the new post-federal situations. (  

Based on the historical experiences of the Balkans, and Europe as a whole, the construction of the political structure of the states should not and could not be done on a mono-ethnic basis. Mono-ethnic states are the product of racial, chauvinistic nationalisms and as such produce endless conflicts and wars. Both the world wars and the Balkan wars themselves throughout the 20th century prove this pattern at its best. Europe after the Second World War was based on the concept of multiethnic democratic states. This format delivered peace, stability and democracy throughout Europe.  (Simon Garnet: The European Peace Project, 27 November 2019).

Based on the cruel experiences of the past, as well as the successful model of the European Union project after the Second World War, the international community in general, especially the US, NATO and the European Union supported the creation of multiethnic states after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. This state model was designed in the most complex fashion within the Dayton Peace Accord (1995) for Bosnia and Herzegovina.  (“Summary of the Dayton Peace Agreement on Bosnia-Herzegovina” 30 November 1995. Retrieved 16 January 2016).

The Dayton Peace Accords ended the interethnic war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it has not yet managed to integrate peacefully and fully the ethnic communities within the same state. The three ethnicities still dominate the Unitarianism of the state. Starting from the top down, the state and society have deepened the ethnic divisions, the three communities move away from each other, the functionality of the state is damaged. In this paradoxical situation the effect of xenophobia on ethnic grounds is obvious. (

At the heart of preserving and promoting ethno-xenophobia in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the Serbian community in Republika Srpska. This community continues to keep alive the first setbacks and during the last war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995 and the ethnocentric spirit in the official policy of this federation unit. The Dodik-led Serbian Nationalist Party has never rejected the ongoing ethnic separatism. He has publicly demanded the withdrawal from the BiH Federation and the declaration of independence of Republika Srpska. To keep this ethnic project alive, Dodik constantly incites ethnic xenophobia in the Serb community. Thus, Milorad Dodik uses ethno-xenophobia for his political purposes.  (Arslanagic, Sabina (3 December 2010). “Dodik Again Denies Srebrenica Genocide”Balkan Insight).  

In the ethno-phobic project, the Serbian leader in Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to enjoy the official support of Belgrade as the mother country, also from the Russian Federation as an Orthodox geopolitical power in support of ethnic, nationalist and racial states in the Balkans. Serbia’s support for the Dodik project and especially Russia’s involvement in this ethno-xenophobic climate is greatly increasing the risk of xenophobia in the Balkans. The Russian Federation has in its strategy, applied exploitation, abused, and neglected the South Slavs, from which only the Serbs have remained loyal.  Bosnia and Herzegovina has been and remains the hottest explosive point of ethnic xenophobia in the Balkans. Internally feasted, Belgrade-sponsored and backed by the Russian Federation, the xenophobic inter-ethnic spirit in Bosnia and Herzegovina requires high vigilance from the drafters and monitors of the Dayton Peace Accords to avoid any recurring scenarios from the Balkan past. Ethno-xenophobes are very explosive detonators in the configuration of multiethnic states in the Balkans. (         

Xénophobies based on religion

The most widespread, deepest, and most difficult xenophobia to address in the Balkans, but not only, are those based on religion. Due to historical, religious, and cultural background, the Balkans are the center when it comes to xenophobes with a religious basis, they either coexist or clash. In this small Peninsula are divided the Great Empires and their religious beliefs. Through the Balkans, the Western Roman Empire was divided from the East, and consequently the Western Catholic Church was separated from the Eastern Orthodox Church.  From the 14th to the 15th centuries this schism process included the Ottoman Empire, that encompassed a Islamic principle of the three most important religions in its construction and functioning. The Islamic principle promoted the Islamization of the peoples of the Balkans. Certainly, there were some assimilated, some partially adopted to Islam, some resisted by preserving the old Catholic or the Orthodox denominations.(Phil Zuckerman, PhD.  In the Balkans, history is always alive. For this reason, religious schism with its divisions, transformations and problems history is still alive and as such affects the relations between peoples, identities, cultures and religions. Therefore, we are dealing with Balkan xenophobia on vulnerable religious grounds. This statement is not a prejudice at all, but a reality that speaks and acts every day in the Balkans.

The first fact that speaks about the existence and danger of religiously based xenophobia in the Balkans is the serious state of conflict created between the two Orthodox communities in Montenegro. It took a long time, starting with the declaration of independence of Montenegro from Serbia in 2006. While Serbia somehow acknowledged Montenegro’s independence and established diplomatic relations with the new independent nation, the Serbian Church never acknowledged the existence of the Autocephalous Church of Montenegro and fought and continues to fight to maintain its control over the church. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church has an older, more consolidated, and more stable history than the Serbian Orthodox Church. But the latter, using the benefit of the political advantages of Serbian State, seeks to dominate firmly over the autocephaly of the Church of Montenegro. (

The open conflict between the Autocephalous Church of Montenegro and the Serbian Church has erupted after the approval of a new law by the Montenegrin parliament in 2019, regarding the properties of the Autocephalous Church of Montenegro. The Serbian Church, it appears to have, a strong Serbian support and Russian geopolitical backbone, is opposing this law. Even the ethnic Serbian community inside Montenegro, the Serbian Church in Belgrade, but also Russian politics in full orchestration between them, are doing everything to destabilize the small Republic of Montenegro in the Adriatic.  By abusing with the conservative Orthodox religious sentiments and religious xenophobia, all Serbian ethnic, political and geopolitical factors have been concentrated on Montenegro, seriously jeopardizing its stability and that of the entire region.   

Another example that proves the existence of religious xenophobia in the Balkans is not biased or prejudice, but they are operating realities with a high risk, even the decision of the Turkish Courts to turn St. Sophia Church in Istanbul into a mosque for the Muslim community in Turkey, is another illustration of these challenges. The Church of St. Sophia is one of the oldest and most valuable heritage sites of the Byzantine Orthodox Church in the World. It is recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site. It was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who decided, after the founding of the Turkish Republic, after the First World War, to turn St. Sophia Church into a public museum.  (

The decision of the Turkish courts a few months ago and the immediate support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provoked strong reactions from many world actors. UNESCO has reacted, EU countries have responded, the Pope from the Vatican has been concerned, senior representatives of the Orthodox Church from Bartholomew to other local churches such as Anastas Janullatos of Albania have also been vocal. It is a large mass of Christian civilization, of both sides, Catholic and Orthodox, but also cultural structures that have reacted against the conversion of St. Sophia Church into a mosque. Such an arbitrary decision severely violates the religious sentiments of billions of people around the world, as well as provokes unpredictable long-term situations in the relations between civilizations, that are especially explosive in the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  ( 

Therefore, carefully observed and analyzing the complex situation in the Balkans has awakened old xenophobes and fostered new ones. The growing trend of xenophobia in the Balkans has many sources and causes and it is diversified in different countries. Today, there is a resurgence of state-based, ethnic-based, and religious-based xenophobia in the Balkan region. Despite the diversity, the common denominator among all these xenophobes is the great danger they carry for the whole Balkans, Europe and beyond. Vigilance against state, ethnic and religious xenophobia in the Balkans is an international imperative. Tolerance towards them is a provocation and a threat to peace and stability, a violation of freedom and democracy, a threat to development and prosperity for the peoples of this part of the world.

 *Dea Bashkurti is a Ph. D. Candidate in Political Science and International Relations, Epoka University, Center for European Studies; Tirana, Albania

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