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The Quintessence of the Balkans

Maria Falina

The Sandžak: A History, by Kenneth Morrison and Elizabeth Roberts, C Hurst & Co, 356 pp, £45, ISBN: 9781849042451.

There are parts of the world with history so different from ours it becomes too confusing. It is only the people who have had the (mis)fortune of having been born there and the odd curious stranger who try to understand them. For the rest of world “enigmatic” or “barbarian” are usually good enough. Because after all, the world hears about these places when yet another disaster has happened – a war, a crime, a coup, a major flood. The Balkans has been such a land of mystery within Europe since the eighteenth century. A lot of the mystery came from its proximity to “the Orient”, in this particular case the Ottoman Empire. The image of the Balkans as a home of savage warriors filled with “ancient hatreds” of national groups towards each other was strongly reinforced in the minds of the European public in the last decade of the twentieth century during the Balkan wars following the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia. The reasons for and consequences of upholding this image have been under discussion ever since the publication of Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans in 1997.

Bizarre as it may sound, but there is an internal Balkan hierarchy of obscurity and incomprehensibility, and the Sandžak is on top of the list. Milica Bakic-Hayden referred to the phenomenon as “nesting orientalism” in her famous reflection on the application of Said’s idea of orientalism to the Balkans. While Serbia is generally known for its militant nationalism, Croatia for the many picturesque tourist attractions on the Adriatic coast with medieval cities and Venetian lions guarding the entrance to Dubrovnik and Bosnia is of course a country “torn by war” where ethnic tensions have been sealed in the impasse of the Dayton agreement, the Sandžak has no label of its own. This part of the Balkans is not really known even to the locals themselves.

Ironically, one of the reasons for the dearth of interest in the region, located on the border between today’s Serbia and Montenegro to the northwest of Kosovo and southeast of Bosnia, is that no major political disaster happened there in the past two hundred years, especially if the point of comparison is Bosnia or Kosovo. This vantage point could be justified on many levels, as there are obvious historical and demographic similarities between these regions, but it can hardly justify the Sandžak’s marginalised place in today’s narratives of the Balkans and Yugoslavia. Despite what Serbian national mythology tells us, it was here, in Sandžak, and not in the neighbouring Kosovo, that the early medieval state, Raška, was established and the first Serbian monasteries were built. The question of why and how Kosovo became the focal point of the Serbian national mythology is not raised in the book as it falls outside its scope, even though it clearly deserves attention. Today, we can only speculate about what would have happened if the battle of Maritsa instead of the Kosovo battle were picked up as the crucial event in the Serbian history, or if the twentieth century promises of Sandžak autonomy were kept.

The first high moment of international interest in the Sandžak occurred between the Congress of Berlin of 1878 and the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. During these three decades, despite almost total economic neglect, this strait of Ottoman lands acquired unprecedented importance. The Sandžak was the bridge between Bosnia now occupied (and later annexed) by the Habsburgs and the remainder of the Ottoman European possessions and the Aegean Sea on the one hand, and the buffer zone separating now independent Serbia and Montenegro, on the other. Its geographical position made all surrounding states lay claims to it and attempt to either take it by force or infiltrate it with agents. With the beginning of the First World War “the Sandžak was again to drift into obscurity such as to make it the archetype of the Balkan backwater” to resurface in the European international agenda amid a different Balkan war in the 1990s.

But there are objective difficulties to explaining the Sandžak as well: how does one define a region if its administrative borders have been shifting throughout centuries, it is currently cut in two by a state border, and has population with mixed ethnic, linguistic, national and religious identities? The task that two authors of the book “The Sandžak: A History” set out for themselves is to “redress this imbalance” in our knowledge. Kenneth Morrison and Elizabeth Roberts bravely embark on the journey of uncovering the history of the area that was the birthplace of Serbian statehood, an important centre of Ottoman trade and which continues to be the place of cohabitation of different religious and ethnic groups. One may argue that the Sandžak is the quintessence of the Balkans due to the very complexities of its cultural and political history.

In the rather short but very informative introduction the authors explain their choice of terminology, and the discussion of the use of “Sandžak” versus “Raška” is most illuminating. In a later interview Morrison explained that they chose to use Sandžak for pragmatic reasons of its better recognition among the English-language audience and stressed that by no means should it be read as an attempt to downplay the importance of the early medieval Serbian state Raška, or as a sign of authorial sympathy for the local Muslims as opposed to the Serbian population.

The first half of the book, written by the former diplomat Elizabeth Roberts, gives a detailed historical overview of the Sandžak from Roman times to the end of the First World War. The opening chapters are concerned with the early Roman and Byzantine periods and tell a rather confusing story of a succession of medieval Slav rulers who fought each other, the Byzantines and the Bulgarians. The following chapters cover the creation of the first Serbian kingdom by the Njemanić dynasty, its growth under prince Milutin and Uroš “the Emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks”, its eventual fall and the incorporation into the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of the Ottoman rule, which was to last until the Balkan war of 1912.

The name “Sandžak” comes from the Turkish word sançak, which was use to designate an administrative unit within the Ottoman Empire. While there were many sançaks in the Ottoman lands, the one we are concerned with here is the Sandžak of Novi Pazar – one of the most important early Ottoman trade centres and later an essential strategic location, the key to the route between Bosnia and the Aegean Sea. The urban centre of Novi Pazar (New Market) was established by the Ottomans in the mid-fifteenth century as they moved further north and west into the Balkan peninsula after the successful victory over the Serbian principalities. Novi Pazar grew rapidly until Sarajevo, established just a few years later, outshone it. Apart from rapid economic growth the Ottomans brought with them the advance of Islam.

The question of religion is, perhaps, one of the most intriguing and fascinating in the history of the region. How did it happen that over a course of a few decades an area where the first Serbian monasteries flourished and the relics of St Sava, the patron of the Serbian nation and the most popular and respected saint, were kept and venerated for centuries, acquired a Muslim majority? Roberts does not dwell on these issues (which is a pity) but does note that “forced, as opposed to economically convenient, conversion – one of the lingering myths – was unnecessary”. For a long time Serbian national historiography has maintained that mass conversions from Orthodox Christianity to Islam under Ottoman rule were the result of forced policy implemented by Istanbul. Recent research with which Roberts is undoubtedly familiar explains the phenomenon as being based principally on economic interests and possibilities of upward social mobility. Another intriguing question, which unfortunately is not addressed directly in the first section, is the transformation of Muslim religious identity into an ethnic or national one, as has happened in the neighbouring Bosnia. Overall, a comparison, even if a tentative one, with Bosnia in the Ottoman and later periods would go a long way to give the reader a better sense of the Sandžak’s character before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The first part of the book is essentially a reiteration of Serbian, Ottoman and a little bit of Austrian political history rather than of the history of the Sandžak itself. Even though in the introduction the authors claim that the book “places great emphasis on the international dynamic which sealed the fate of the Sandžak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”, it seems that the first hundred pages of the final product is rather a survey of the relevant moments from political history of medieval and modern Serbia and the Ottoman Empire with the Sandžak mentioned every now and then. Frequent movement in the Austrian-Ottoman border is undoubtedly important, but what it actually meant for the region and its inhabitants would require further explanation. Some statistics for population movements are provided, but these are insufficient to convey the importance and long-term consequences of the Serbs moving up north following the Austrian retreat in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, or the withdrawal of the Muslim population following the Congress of Berlin that granted the Austrians the right to keep military garrisons in the area.

The second part of the book deals with the twentieth century, and starting with the Second World War the narrative becomes more analytical and is based on original primary research as much as on the existent body of literature. However, the Balkan and First World Wars, together with the interwar period, are squeezed into just a few pages. Nonetheless, the second part of the book offers some genuinely new insights into the history of the Sandžak, especially on the issue of autonomy. In this regard the Second World War was of paramount importance, as it was then that ZAVNOS – the Land Assembly for the National Liberation of Sandžak was actively advocating a separate unit for Sandžak within socialist Yugoslavia. The promises made were not kept and Communist Party officials in Belgrade decided that the territory would be divided again between Serbia and Montenegro. This move naturally upset the local population, the majority of whom perceived this division as an unjust legacy of the brutal experience of the Balkan wars. It was only in the mid-1960s, after Aleksandar Ranković’s fall from power, that the Muslim population of the area started to regard the Yugoslav state as its own. Introduction of “Muslim” as a separate ethnic category was a big step forward in this process, and the number of self-defined “Muslims” increased over the next three decades. The close association of the new national identity with religion proved to be very problematic in the more recent period, when much of Serbian violence during the break-up of Yugoslavia was fuelled by the old anti-Islamic rhetoric. To address this issue “Muslim” was replaced with the new label “Bosniak”, which was to be applied to the inhabitants of the Sandžak as well. However, the solution presented new difficulties, as many Serbian nationalists perceived this change as a sign that people in Sandžak were not loyal to their state and had their eyes fixed on Bosnia. This must have brought back the memories of the 1917 project when the local Sandžak Muslim notables from both sides of the Serbian-Montenegrin border voted in favour of secession from their respective countries and the creation of an administrative autonomy for Sandžak within Bosnia. In the 1990s all local attempts to secure autonomy for Sandžak repeatedly failed, as did the initiative to promote the cause at the international level. The spillover of violence from Bosnia to Sandžak was a concern for the locals, but never reached high prominence internationally.

What this book ultimately proves is how deeply national categories are ingrained in our historical and political thinking. Despite the authors’ best efforts it seems to be impossible to construct and narrate a coherent story of the Sandžak region –which is too closely intertwined with the histories of bigger political entities of which it once was a part – Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro. Without fixed national borders to rely upon and no uniform political/ cultural identity present the task becomes close to impossible. Having said that, the Sandžak has a track record of failed attempts to define itself politically and legally through claims to autonomy and even independence. “The idea of autonomy for the Sandžak now seems unrealistic,” writes Morrison in the closing chapter. “True, the Sandžak is a specific entity, even if there is no legal statute declaring it so. But the two parts of the Sandžak have become increasingly detached.” Another important thing that this book demonstrates with remarkable clarity is that the Sandžak, together with the rest of the Balkans, has been an integral part of European politics since the Roman times. Without openly saying so it restores the broken ties between “progressive” Western Europe and the Balkan “land of mystery”.

Overall, the book is a thoroughly researched survey with some original primary source analysis in the post-Second World War chapters, which in itself should not be a problem. However, the abundance of historical detail is truly overwhelming. While a specialist in the area would have already known most of the facts prior to opening the book, a non-specialist risks drowning in the sea of names, terms and dates of battles and peace treaties. At the same time, very few “big questions” are presented to help the reader filter what’s important and how things relate to each other. The fact that the first part of the book doesn’t make use of Turkish (let alone Albanian) scholarly works makes the narrative somewhat Slav-oriented. It has to be noted that this is a very common handicap. English language historiography of the Balkans continues to be organised by language, that is, very few students of Slavic studies read Ottoman or modern Turkish. The opposite is true as well ‑ Ottoman scholars would rather master Arabic than a Slavic language or Greek. Geographical maps of mountain ranges, rivers and valleys mentioned in the book might have been a simple enough addition (several very useful historical maps have been provided) that could go a long way to help the readers orientate themselves. The geography of the Balkans is as difficult to navigate as its history.
3/6/2014

 Maria Falina is a lecturer in modern European history at University College Dublin. Her research focuses on the history of political thought in East Central Europe, modern history of the Balkans and the relationship between religion and nationalism in modern Europe.

 

 

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