In The Balkans in the Cold Wareditors Svetozar Rajak, Konstantina E. Botsiou, Eirini Karamouzi and Evanthis Hatzivassiliou bring together contributors drawing on recently released archival documents to explore the origins, development and impact of the Cold War in the Balkan regions. While less convinced of the book’s treatment of culture in the region, this is a forceful challenge to prevailing historical interpretations and a valuable contribution to scholarship on the Balkans in this period, writes Eliot Rothwell.

The Balkans in the Cold War. Svetozar Rajak, Konstantina E. Botsiou, Eirini Karamouzi and Evanthis Hatzivassiliou (eds). Palgrave. 2017.

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1989 was a tumultuous year for Europe. Across the continent, Communist parties and leaders gave way to a tide of discontent. In the Balkans, their removal precipitated the arduous beginnings of the transition to market capitalism and the rise of ethnic tensions. For scholars, the events of 1989 also brought about sudden shifts. The bi-polar world receded and the analytical categories that came with a ‘two-camp’ Europe lost their relevance. Instead, post-communist states began to open their archives, offering scholars the chance to re-evaluate the Cold War and its manifestations throughout the world.

Like much of the scholarship in the last two decades, The Balkans in the Cold War, edited by Svetozar Rajak, Konstantina E. Botsiou, Eirini Karamouzi and Evanthis Hatzivassiliou, utilises recently released archival documents to reconsider the history of the period. These new gleanings from the archives are ordered into five sections in the book, covering the period from the late 1940s to the 1980s. The book begins with an outline of the onset of the Cold War in the Balkan region. It then details intra- and inter-bloc relations, before concluding with an exploration of the intersections of ideology and culture in the peninsula.

The book’s most notable chapters are those which employ new documentary evidence to challenge prevailing attitudes. Mark Kramer’s work delves into the archives of the former Soviet bloc to explore the relationship between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union around the split of 1949. Kramer contends that Stalin attempted to reach a peaceful agreement immediately after the split, but then settled on a military solution in the final years of his life, directing troop movements along the Yugoslav border. Jordan Baev utilises Bulgarian military documents to boldly suggest that the creation of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 marked the end of already ongoing military and political integration, rather than its beginning. Laurien Crump’s contribution rests on documents from Bucharest and Berlin, which she mobilises to demonstrate the ‘multilateralisation’ of the Warsaw Pact, especially in the cases of Romania and Albania (166). Benedetto Zaccaria aims to redress the predominant view of Yugoslavia’s relationship with the European Economic Community (EEC). He suggests that, rather than neglecting relations between each other, Yugoslavia and the EEC successfully broadened ties in the 1970s and 1980s.

Image Credit: (Brian Eager CC BY 2.0)

Each of these chapters is anchored in the main threads that run throughout The Balkans and the Cold War. Kramer’s contribution is situated in the relationship between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, which provides an overarching framework for much of the book. Ties between Yugoslavia, the largest state in a predominantly Communist Balkans, and the Soviet Union, the world’s dominant Communist power, oscillated between fracture and partial repair for much of the period. The Yugoslav-Soviet split of 1949 left deep resentment, despite the temporary mending of relations provided by Tito’s trip to Moscow in 1956 and Brezhnev’s visit to Yugoslavia in 1971. It also encouraged Yugoslavia to pursue a non-aligned course, developing connections with the Global South and NATO, as well as the EEC, the latter of which comprises much of the third section of the book.

Yugoslavia’s cultivation of ties across Cold War divides also emphasises another of the book’s major themes: the agency exercised by Balkan countries in their dealings with power blocs. Yugoslavia’s break from the Soviet Union, its fostering of relations with the West and its role as a leader of the non-aligned movement demonstrated what could be possible. Other Balkan states then began to explore their room to manoeuvre. As Crump suggests, Romania and Albania widened the boundaries of the permissible within the Warsaw Pact, developing links with China to contribute to ‘the multilaterisation of the former monolith’ (166). But Greece and Turkey, the two NATO-aligned Balkan states, also carved out their own positions. Both attempted to reduce their reliance on the US by negotiating with the EEC, ‘the significant other’ (219) of Cold War Europe. On each side of the Cold War divide, Balkan states mapped their own interests onto regional politics, balancing the global with the local to further their aims.

The interactions between the Balkan states and larger powers are consistently drawn upon in The Balkans and the Cold War, but the final section treads a different path. The three chapters included in it are grouped under the title ‘Identity, Culture, Ideology’. Each makes interesting contributions but the section feels grafted on to the end of the book: more of an afterthought than a continuation of the overall threads running through the rest of the work. Here, the book encounters some of the problems of its broad scope. Including a chapter on Turkey’s Westernisation debate alongside an essay on Yugloslavia’s reaction to the Prague Spring remains a challenge. For the most part, The Balkans and the Cold War succeeds in bringing together its various strands, but the final section is too restricted to sufficiently explore its chosen subject matter of identity, culture and ideology in the Balkans from 1945 to the late 1980s.

Within the final section, Miroslav Perišić’s chapter on cultural shifts in Yugoslavia also provides some issues for consideration. He outlines the broadening of ties between Yugoslavia and the West, demonstrated by a 1950 exhibition of Yugoslav frescoes in Paris and a 1957 Yugoslav film festival in Britain. But Perišić presents these cultural shifts as singular to Yugoslavia, locating them in the move away from the Soviet Union. He neglects the similar processes taking place in the Soviet Union in the same decade, as cultural exchanges with the West blossomed and cooperation agreements were signed with Britain, the United States and France. Rather than being unique, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union both attempted – among other things – to dispel Western myths by expanding their programmes of cultural exchange.

Despite these difficulties, The Balkans and the Cold War provides a forceful challenge to many of the prevailing interpretations of the region’s history. It effectively makes use of recently released archival documents to alter the understanding of Yugoslav-Soviet relations and the agency of the Balkan states with regards to the Soviet Union, the United States and the EEC. The book falters somewhat in its treatment of culture in the period, but remains a valuable contribution to the history of the Balkans in the Cold War.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Eliot Rothwell – UCL
Eliot Rothwell is currently finalising his MA dissertation at UCL’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. He is researching the expansion of cultural ties between the Soviet Union and Western Europe in the Khrushchev era. He also holds a BA Hons in History from the University of Warwick and spent an Erasmus year at Boğaziçi Üniversitesi in Istanbul. He tweets @EliotRothwell

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