As the clash point between three former empires, the Balkans seemed almost destined to symbolise trouble. Constantly shifting borders and people as well as unspeakable cruelty have all given the region its bad name. "Balkanisation", the perpetual disintegration of states into smaller entities, is now more famous as a concept than the individual countries the region encompasses. The recent Yugoslav war has rekindled all these historic fears. In most of Europe the Balkans are now regarded as a zone of perpetual instability, a region best left outside the Continent's co-operation structures. Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics and Hungary are considered as serious candidates for membership in both the European Union and Nato. But at the EU summit in Madrid last week, the case of Romania, Albania, Bulgaria and Turkey were met with ominous silence. Yet the West's assumption that the Balkan states should solve their problems before, rather than after, joining European institutions has little chance of success.
Much of Europe's reticence about the area is misconceived: the view that the Balkans represent a disease rather than merely a geographic entity is based on a fundamental misreading of history. While it is true that the region has had more than its fair share of violence, it is also a fact that much of this was engineered by competing alliances hatched in the West, rather than just local animosities.
Nor is it true that the Balkans are still torn by "tribal warfare" today: former Yugoslavia is a unique case of a multi-ethnic state that failed. In no other Balkan country do ethnic minorities represent more than 10 per cent of the population and none of the minority disputes in the region can be solved by changing frontiers. "Balkanisation" is a Western nightmare, based on a fatal misunderstanding of the past rather than an Eastern reality.
Finally, the region has displayed a genuine desire to forget its turbulent history: refusing to engage in any regional disputes, Bulgaria and Romania have become friendly with both Greece and Turkey, precisely what the rest of Europe did not expect them to do. And the best co-operation between Romania and Hungary is on the military level, exactly what nobody in Europe imagined. Yet all the Balkan countries suspect that, however hard they try, the West is ultimately interested merely in ignoring them.
Albania has heeded Western demands to keep out of the Yugoslav war. The Western response is to advocate that Serbia retains control over the ethnically Albanian region of Kosovo, while granting the local population "autonomy", a meaningless compromise in which nobody believes.
The Balkan states were never consulted when economic sanctions were imposed on Serbia. Their economies bore the brunt of the damages, but their appeals for compensation, based on provisions of the United Nations Charter that were designed precisely for this eventuality, have elicited no response. And when Nato decided to go into Bosnia, the other Balkan states were politely told that the best thing they could do was observe the proceedings from the sidelines.
Resentment against a West which is widely seen to be promising the moon but delivering on nothing is now rising throughout the Balkans. Nowhere is this feeling more palpable than in Turkey. Before the Gulf crisis began in 1991, Turkey was Iraq's most important economic partner, with trade totalling $3bn a year. Not only has this disappeared, but Turkey was left with a total of $700m in unpaid Iraqi bills as well. Jordan, a much smaller country, has received $6bn in compensation for applying the sanctions against Iraq, while Turkey enjoyed nothing more than reduced prices on Saudi oil for a few months. It does not matter that Jordan originally supported Saddam Hussein, Iraq's dictator, while Turkey was an ally of the West; the Americans needed Jordanian co-operation in the conclusion of a peace settlement with Israel, while Turkey's friendship was simply taken for granted.
To make matters worse, the end of Communism brought stability to Central Europe but not to the Continent's peripheries. One after another, the former Soviet republics of central Asia, such as Azerbaijan, populated by nations ethnically related to the Turks, have been forced back under Russian influence, with the West not only ignoring these developments but actually preparing to allow Russia to maintain more troops on Turkey's frontiers than the limits laid down under international agreements that Moscow agreed a few years ago. But, far from seeking to reassure Turkey about its own security, the West criticised the Turkish government for its breaches of human rights and imposed visa requirements on Turkish passport holders. The result was the rise this week of an Islamic fundamentalist party which capitalised on this frustration with the West by promising Turkey's withdrawal from Nato.
On paper, the West has all the mechanisms for engaging in the region: a new free trade accord will enter into force with Turkey this January, while Bulgaria and Romania have co-operation accords with both the EU and Nato. But the difficulty is that all these promises carry increasingly diminishing conviction, given the West's record in the region over the past few years.
For centuries, the West has laboured under the mistaken notion that it was able to choose just how much or, usually, how little, it should become involved in the Balkans. If this effort is accompanied by co-operation and real promises of integration to the other neighbouring states, Nato's Bosnia adventure will be a success. But if the West persists in its concentration on Bosnia alone, it will quickly discover that the Balkans are good at burying the best of intentions. The task today is no longer just keeping Bosnia at peace but pacifying an entire region.
The writer is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.Reuse content