29 August 2010

West European Interference in the Balkans in the Era of Balkan Decolonialization: The Outcome

(See The Timeline for part I.)
(See The Context for part II.)

West European intervention in the Balkans up until the 1880s worked well toward its desired outcome. The extent of Ottoman retreat was less than would have been without the involvement of the Western powers. Russia in this period demonstrated both the willingness to fight the Ottoman Empire and the ability to defeat it. Had the West Europeans stood aside Russia would have almost certainly be able to free the region from the Turks and pave the way for the establishment of independent Balkan national states. As it was the completion of liberation of the Balkan's Christians had to wait for several decades more and had to be achieved by the Balkan peoples themselves.

The decisive West European intervention in 1878 in Berlin meant the Balkan peoples were to derive only minimal benefit from the Russian victory in the 1877-78 Russian-Turkish war which Russia had fought more for their benefit than its own. Before that European stance in international diplomacy and the consequences and the memory of its invasion of Russia in the Crimean War kept St. Petersburg from perhaps launching a general attempt at freeing the Balkan peoples not in 1877, but perhaps earlier in the 1860s or the 1850s.

Western meddling thus made much of the sacrifice of the Russian soldier in 1877 in vain and prolonged Ottoman oppression and human tragedy in the Balkans for a further generation – until the region was freed of its imperial overlords with the First Balkan War in 1912. As H. N. Brailsford noted a century ago:

"We did not think that the affairs of Turkey were no concern of ours in 1878, when we tore up the Treaty of San Stefano and were ready to use "the ships, the men," and "the money too" in order to prevent the liberation of Macedonia by its inclusion in a free Bulgaria. The actual situation is of our making, and the Macedonians have endured a generation of oppression because we conceived that their emancipation was inconsistent with our own Imperial interests."

The Balkan Christian nations in this period demonstrated their desire to be freed of Turkish rule and their willingness to take up arms and fight to this end. However they were not jet strong enough to eject the Turks on their own. Thus while Western intervention in this time greatly limited the extent of liberation won for the Balkans by Russia it can not be said to had thwarted its liberation by its native peoples.

21 August 2010

West European Interference in the Balkans in the Era of Balkan Decolonialization: The Context

(See The Timeline for part I.)

In the timeframe of the the struggle for Balkan decolonialization (1804-1912) the West European powers intervened in the region on many occasions. Keeping in line with their interest in preserving the Ottoman Empire they did so on the side of the Ottomans and against the cause of freedom in the Balkans.

The involvement can be divided into two periods. The first one when it was in their view directed against Russia. And the second period after the Russian throne had lost its previous interest in challenging the status quo in the region and West European Powers were to intervene jointly with Russia.

Ottoman Empire in the 19th century was an empire in obvious decline. Territorially it was still enormous covering a vast expanse of land from the Persian Gulf to the Balkans and from the Caucasus to Algeria however it was increasingly unable to hold onto its lands in the face of encroaching rival empires and native revolt.

France and Britain, albeit not loathe to take advantage of the Ottoman decline to win influence and lands in North Africa and the Middle East, did not see that they could profit from the Ottoman retreat in the Balkans and the Transcaucusus and so sought to prevent Russia from profiting there herself. This put them on course of backing the Turks against Russia and internal insurrections.

The Habsburg Empire, which had once seen Turkey as its sworn enemy and its historical mission to lead the fight against the Turk, came in the period to see itself as internally weak and unable to absorb any more Slav land in the Balkans, and as a result loathed above all to see the Ottoman Empire retreat from its borders and see it replaced by national Balkan states – which would in one fell swoop both, eliminate the rationale for its existence, as well as showcase the alternative to it.

Thus the Western powers had their own reasons valid to them to favour the course of action undertaken. Their rationales were not borne of malevolence but of high politics. To the Balkanites however the fight against the Turks was categorically not a matter of grand politics. They knew of no issue such as the "Eastern Question", only the matter of their freedom. And so in their national and class struggle against their imperial overlords the Powers of West Europe were to repeatedly come out on the side of their oppressors and to throw obstacles on their path to liberation.

06 August 2010

West European Interference in the Balkans in the Era of Balkan Decolonialization: The Timeline

It is not popularly known, but the history of West European interference in the Balkan region is prolonged and goes back to the 19th century. The level of meddling in those times ranged from mild diplomatic involvement in issues like Romanian unification to the nearly megalomaniacal with the drawing and redrawing of borders of the Balkans from afar at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. The first instance of Western interference in the Balkans dates to distant 1827. Before that tremors of the actions undertaken by West European Powers could be felt on the peninsula – in 1813 Revolutionary Serbia, in constant warfare with the Ottomans and with fluid borders, but independent and holding its own, collapsed shortly after the French invasion of Russia deprived it of Russian aid - but there was no deliberate interference.

In 1821 a Greek revolt flared up in the Ottoman Empire, bringing to the forefront the so called Eastern Question, or how the matter of the obviously declining Turkish Empire was to be resolved. In this instance the West European Powers recognised that the weight of the moral argument was with the subjugated Greeks, but at the same time felt that contraction of Turkish strength was not in their interest and so found themselves in a bind.

In the end Britain and France intervened on the Greek side militarily but only by mistake. Britain's initial approach had been to take action to delay a pro-Greek intervention by Russia - in order to give the Turks the time needed to suppress the revolt. This strategy became unpractical given that meanwhile a new, more adventuristic tsar willing to wage war against the Ottomans on his own if need be was crowned in Russia. So in an attempt to prevent Russia going to war with Turkey – which would surely leave the Ottoman Empire weakened and possibly vulnerable to further territorial losses - it won it over for a joint show of force at sea designed to force the Porte to appease the Greeks by granting them autonomy. The naval demonstration however turned into a battle when, faced with the bellicose British commander, the Turks ended up firing on the combined British-French-Russian fleet which then proceeded to devastate its Turkish-Egyptian counterpart. Russia used this as the pretext to launch its war. After it won it the other Powers did what they could to limit its gains and to preserve as much Ottoman strength as they could.

Before this official intervention there had already been a private intervention. Significant funds were raised via private donations in West Europe for the Greek cause and a few thousand Philhellenes travelled from West Europe to Greece to battle alongside the Greeks – where not uncommonly they were disappointed to find the earthy Greeks to be the farthest thing from the cultured Hellenes of their imagination. And so right from its onset Western interference in the region was fuelled less by understanding of the realities of the region and more by Western preconceptions of it.

The Greek Revolt of the 1820s would mark the first and the only time West Europe was to, even if in a very limited manner, intervene against the Ottoman Empire and in favour of the subjugated Christians. From therefore on it would become a reliable and generous backer of the semi-medieval, oriental empire.

01 August 2010

Cushioning Defeat

Did you know that while the Empire's Afghanistan surge has admittedly been a failure in most respects, one aspect of it has worked really well? Its death squads have proven very successful. This straight from the NYT. (Naturally the NYT is much too cultured to call a death squad a death squad. Instead it talks of a "Special Operations team" and "targeted killings".) 

You have to wonder about the moral state of a place whose newspaper of note writes an upbeat piece about the policy of its government operating a death squad 6,000 miles and two oceans away from its frontiers. American death squads claiming to have hunted down over 130 alleged Afghan resistance commanders, none of which had anything to do with the 2001 terrorist attacks on WTC, why how wonderfully marvellous. 

Of course no actual proof is given for the claim that they "turned out to work well" either, except for a claim by an unnamed "senior American military officer" who told the reporters of Taliban fighters who are fearful of moving into higher-level command positions and another equally unnamed "senior White House official" who tells us “If I were the Taliban, I’d be worried.” Yeah. And if I were a news reader I'd want a comment on the scheme from an actual Taliban, not from a figment of some paid-for hack's imagination. 

In reality any such programme has an Achilles' heel the size of Oregon. To not be counter-productive it has to be paired with good intelligence. Something the Americans do not have in Afghanistan for certain. We can know this easily by the simple fact that approaches to Kabul are not adorned with pikes hoisting the severed heads of Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

But hey, with Marja a "bleeding ulcer" and the announcement of a Kandahar offensive being met with the insistence of the locals that they would sooner not be liberated, the occupation needs a bright spot, even if it consists of a shadowy special forces outfit working their way down a death list based on questionable intelligence. And since the article's pitch is how the US efforts are going to force the Taliban to negotiate it has the added benefit of not having to be proven - because unlike the outcomes of large sweep operations its results, or the lack of thereof, are not visible to distant observers.

Reality is such that the US, to the frustration of its junior partners in crime and its marionette in Kabul alike, had so far been the party uninterested in meaningful negotiations. The US likely though it would instead better its negotiating position with the escalation and talk only then, or even not at all. But since all its attempts at actually gaining a better position for the talks have only served to demonstrate its impotence it is now, as far as it can be seen, simply making up victories to fool its domestic audience, so when and if it does enter talks it will seem a victory of the escalation rather than its defeat.