What Scotland Can Learn from ‘Balkanisation’

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  By Peter Geoghegan
 
The longer any online discussion goes on, the greater the probability that someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis.  This maxim – known as ‘Godwin’s Law’ – is so widely accepted that it has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
 
So today I would like to propose an #indyref equivalent (but please don’t call it ‘Geoghegan’s Law’!): the longer any discussion about Scottish independence goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone adducing the Balkans.

By Peter Geoghegan
 
The longer any online discussion goes on, the greater the probability that someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis.  This maxim – known as ‘Godwin’s Law’ – is so widely accepted that it has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
 
So today I would like to propose an #indyref equivalent (but please don’t call it ‘Geoghegan’s Law’!): the longer any discussion about Scottish independence goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone adducing the Balkans.

‘Balkanisation’. It is a word that, rightly, strikes fear into anyone with a decent memory or a cursory knowledge of late 20th century European history.  A phrase borne of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and redolent of the crackle of gunfire and the heavy thud of mortar rounds.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many snipers on Sauchiehall Street, or armed militias on training exercises at the Rest and Be Thankful.  But that hasn’t stopped some senior figures evoking the ‘B’ word recently.

‘Balkanisation’. That is what George Robertson warned will happen if Scots vote Yes on September 18. “The fragmentation of Europe starting on the centenary of the first world war would be both an irony and a tragedy with incalculable consequences,” the former NATO secretary general and Labour Defence minister said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington in April.

Lord Robertson has previous when it comes to making wayward predications. It was he, after all, who in 1995 prophesied that “Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead”.

But Robertson is also a Labour politician so his hyperbolic intervention is at least understandable in those terms. 

Unlike Carl Bildt’s.

Earlier this month Sweden’s foreign minister, and former UN special envoy to the Balkans, warned in an interview with the Financial Times that Scottish independence would lead to the “Balkanisation of the British Isles” and would set off “unforeseen chain reactions” in both Europe and the UK.

‘Balkanisation’, in the referendum debate, is a dog whistle.  A shrill sounding off to a particular audience, largely international, that believes that behind every nationalist movement lies chauvinism.  Scottish nationalists have hidden their true nature thus far, even perhaps from themselves, but a descent into the ethnic abyss is an ever-present danger.

What we talk about when we talk about the Balkans is the likelihood of violence and terror ripping previously placid polities apart.

But what if we actually looked at whether the Balkan experience might be able to better inform the independence debate?  Might we be able to learn something the practices and procedures of forming new nation-states on the edge of Europe, all roughly the same size as Scotland?

One such area is the vexed question of who would be the legal successor state if Scotland votes yes.  Nationalists say both Scotland and the rest of the UK; unionists maintain that only the UK could rightfully claim to be the successor.

Here a glance in the direction of the Balkans is instructive.  In their brief union in the 1990s, both Serbia and Montenegro claimed they were the successor state to Yugoslavia.  Neither won the argument.  All six ex-Yugoslav republics were deemed successor states.

The recent political and economic experiences of the Balkan states are worth considering, too.  The Yugoslav system was already crumbling by the early 1980s, well before Slobodan Milosevic had whipped Serbs into a nationalist frenzy.  But for much of the previous two decades, Yugoslavia enjoyed a high standard of living, broadly on a par with much of Mediterranean Europe.

This is no longer the case.  Serbia ranks 64 in the 2013 Human Development Index; Macedonia is 78; Bosnia and Herzegovina comes 81st. (The UK by comparison is 26th).  The Balkan states are among the most unequal in Europe.

The reason Balkan states fare so poorly is not because they are separate rather than united in a Federation.  It is not even, directly, because of the war.  It is because they have been ruled for two decades by varying combinations of disinterested international representatives and nakedly self-interested politicians that took advantage of the power vacuum since the late 1980s.

Kleptocracy, not clichéd nonsense about ‘ancient hatreds’, has been the biggest blight on the Balkans.

There are lessons for Scotland in all this: like the Balkans before the 1990s, Scotland has never been independent in the modern sense of the world.  The travails of the Balkan states are a stark warning about how poor governance and corruption can become hardwired into nascent institutions, the importance of democratic checks and balances and the problems of nepotism in small countries.  

But this, of course, is not what George Robertson and Carl Bildt mean when they unwittingly evoke ‘Geoghegan’s law’ (Ok, maybe we can call it that).  They mean that Scotland, and Europe, will collapse in an orgy of violence. That only the strong-arm of the status quo – like that of Marshall Tito – can save us from the worst of ourselves.

The Balkans has plenty to teach Scotland in the run-up to September and afterwards.  ‘Balkanisation’, however, does not.