A shift in Europe's border conflicts

March 20, 1998

Academia is putting the post-communist states on its map. Michael Waller reports

RENEWED tension in Kosovo and the banning of the Welfare Party in Turkey cannot but push the Islamic question higher up the research agenda for the United Kingdom.

The growing significance of Turkey for research was highlighted by the decision of Norman Stone to leave the dreaming spires of Oxford for the dream-piercing minarets of Turkey to establish the Institute of Russian- Turkish Studies in Ankara. The fall of communism has naturally been seen mostly in terms of the effective removal of East-West tensions - at least in their military aspect. The importance of their replacement by a sharpening of North-South tensions was not immediately apparent, but its implications are filtering through.

This brings Islam into sharper focus, nowhere more so than in the Balkans, at the point where the older East-West polarity intersects with that between North and South. The significance of these developments was acknowledged three years ago when the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to finance university posts specialising in former communist Europe.

The Economic and Social Research Council has just launched a new research programme on "One Europe or Several?" This presents another opportunity to ensure that British research follows the rapid and still perplexing evolution of Europe's eastern and south eastern peripheries. Watching events since the fall of communism has been like looking into a kaleidoscope. The degree of predictability has varied according to the different geographical theatres, mingling historical factors with a new geopolitics of Europe and its immediate environs.

Three distinct theatres can be discerned among the former communist countries. First, a northern tier of postcommunist countries with the "Visegrad" states at its core, but now including the Baltic states and Slovenia. Second, Russia, with its semicorona of new states enrolled in the Confederation of Independent States. Third, the southeast European postcommunist countries.

What characterises these last is their heterogeneity, with a Yugoslavia already distanced from Soviet-bloc Bulgaria and Romania and now diversifying.

The differences are not only geographical, but political and cultural. Those of the northern tier look towards the European Union, which is contiguous with it but for a few borders and is already spilling over economically. The CIS has a long border with Islamic states. The southeast European post-communist countries share the Balkan peninsula with two mutually hostile states that did not have communism - Greece and Turkey.

As the political relevance of the communist past has receded, other factors have replaced it. Some have sharpened the contrasts (relationships with the European Union and Nato, for instance), while others have emphasised the links. One such link, between the Balkan and the Russian theatres, is the politics of the hydrocarbon resources in the swathe of territory that runs eastwards from Turkey to Turkic post-Soviet Kazakstan. Another is Islam, ever present in Turkey as a cultural factor of central internal importance, and forming the backdrop to Russia's relations with its CIS partners in Central Asia and with Islamic countries beyond, not to mention the relevance of Islam in the internal politics of the Russian Federation itself.

Of the 33 posts HEFCE has helped create to ensure proper coverage of the post-communist countries, no fewer than ten went to the Visegrad countries, despite the fact that Europeanists of various stripes, together with a phalanx of public opinion analysts, were already investing heavily in studies of that area.

It will be interesting to see what cognisance the ESRC's new programme takes of the new geopolitics developing on Europe's southeastern fringe.

Nedret Burcoglu of the University of the Bosphorus has organised an international research project on the image of the Turk. It is a topical subject in this changed world at Europe's periphery. The importance of making distinctions within Islam was stressed in discussion of the project. So too was the fact that Europe had its "own" Muslims distinct from the immigrant populations whose presence feeds the popular tendency to identify Islam with Asia. These are the Muslims whom we forget, who have been settled in Europe for centuries - European Turks, yes, but also the Bosnian Muslims, the Albanians of Kosovo, Macedonia and of Albania itself, as well as less numerous pockets such as the Pomaks of Bulgaria.

The image of the Turk in Europe has a reverse side of equal importance. That is the view that Turks - and indeed the other Balkan peoples - have of the Western transnational institutions such as Nato, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe and, perhaps above all, the European Union itself.

The periphery of Europe in that region is peripheral in a literal geographical sense. But in political terms it is in many ways central to European politics. Taken together these factors provide so many reasons for continuing to ensure that the study of the Balkans is adequately covered in the UK's research planning.

Michael Waller is head of the Southeast Europe Unit at Keele University.

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