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At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Balkans were considered a "tinder box" of Europe and virtually the key hot spot of international politics. In part, they reaffirmed this dubious fame later as well. And if during the World War II there was a rampage all over Europe, Asia and locally, the first half of the 1990s saw the Balkan alarming and tragic news outclass the competition over all the others.
Now the Middle East is referred to as the "new Balkans" and the new international "tinder box". This does not mean that everything has become quiet and calm on the Southern European Peninsula proper – we are only talking about a relatively lower level of conflict. Well, this gives a handle to observers not to relax their attention to what is happening there. Especially given that the authentic Balkans are rather strongly bound with the new ones both historically (let's recall the famous French researcher Fernand Braudel's "Mediterranean civilization" concept), geopolitically, and economically. A striking example is the energy alliance of Greece, Cyprus and Israel, which has developed before our very eyes and has certain military and political earmarks. Its new peak is the construction of the joint Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline (EastMed pipeline).
The Turkish Foreign Ministry has provided a really sharp response to the agreement on the gas pipeline, which was formalized in early January. Ankara has issued a strong statement offering prospects of a quick collapse of the seven-billion-dollar project. "Any project which aims to ignore Turkey with the longest coastline in the eastern Mediterranean and aims to ignore Turkish Cypriots who have equal rights over the natural sources of the Cyprus island will not be successful [it's about the so-called "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" formed after a brief conflict in 1974 and not recognized by anyone except for continental tribesmen]. [This is] a new example of useless moves in the region in an attempt to leave our country out."
The tit-for-tat response from Greece was not long in coming. The country's Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, delivering a press conference speech on the civil war in Libya, said that Athens strongly welcomes every attempt to end it. However, from its national perspective, it is particularly interested in an international nullity of the memorandums on maritime zones and military cooperation, previously signed by Turkey and Libya's Government of National Accord. A month ago, the Turks published a map of sea zones based on this document, according to which Turkey got a significant part of Greece's exclusive economic zone.
There are a plenty of problems in the Balkans as such, outside of the supra-regional context. The past year and the beginning of this one have provided a lot of evidence. Thus, in 2018-2019, violent social and political unrest accompanied the dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the name of the latter. Since the proclamation of Macedonian independence, Athens has strongly opposed the name of its new neighbor, claiming there is only one Macedonia – the Greek province. A temporary compromise was reached, and "the former Yugoslav Republic" was added to the country's name in the international arena. However, the lack of an ultimate solution to the issue hampered Skopje from joining NATO and the EU. In 2018, a compromise seemed to have been reached, and a new name – "North Macedonia" – was approved at the Macedonian referendum, which raised a great many questions about its turnout and representativeness. In January 2019, the national parliament enacted this name. However, much of the Greek society considered Athens' consent to this move an unacceptable concession. There were protests in the country that attracted more than a hundred thousand people, with head of the Defense Ministry Panos Kammenos of the right-wing Independent Greeks party resigning defiantly. As a result, though, the degree of indignation had gradually subsided.
Kosovo has also been troubled all year long. Serbia keeps refusing to recognize the independence of this self-proclaimed territory and has moreover achieved certain success as to its international delegitimation. Thus, last year witnessed several third world countries that previously recognized Pristina change their mind. Nevertheless, in spring, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that sooner or later one will have to accept the inevitable, and called for initiating an extensive public dialogue on the problem. Actively discussed was the issue of Pristina's possible recognition by Belgrade upon the exchange-of-territory term, so that the Kosovo regions still having a predominantly Serbian population could be handed over to Serbia. But the Kosovo leadership has flatly rejected a deal of this kind and responded to the peace proposals with a brigand power raid on Serbian communities, during which a Russian diplomat was injured, among other things. There has been no long-term escalation after all, but the balance remains extremely delicate. The US is trying to fix the problem in such a way that both sides stay in its orbit of influence.
Finally, at the very end of the year, Serbia and the Serbs faced a blow from Montenegro. A while back we have already written about the church question in this country. It is a canonical territory of the Serbian Orthodox Church that gained independence of religious administration during the period of Turkish rule in Serbia. In the early 1990s, a schismatic church appeared here to insist on regaining this independence as an autocephaly. This is one of the primary reasons of the extremely cautious attitude of the Serbian hierarchs to the precedent of creating the OCU in Ukraine to virtually become the main state church with its recognition being promoted internationally.
The Montenegrin secular authorities are, by contrast, extremely inspired by the Ukrainian example. In late December, the Parliament passed the Draft Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Legal Status of Religious Communities, which should be better called the "law on unfreedom and arbitrariness". Thus, Article 11 states that any religious community in Montenegro must be headquartered there and cannot extend outside its borders, while Article 16 postulates that no religious community may have in its name “an official name of another country or its emblems"; this is an open and obvious blow to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Article 4 obliges religious communities to inform the government before appointing their "senior religious leaders". Finally, as part of implementing this act, over 650 monasteries and temples will be taken away from the SOC.
Such impudence caused irritation even with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Vatican that came out in a united front with the SOC. But, apparently, the American curators of Balkan politics are quite satisfied. Feeling their support, Podgorica goes great lengths – for instance, the police mercilessly pummel the priests protesting against the law. Calls are coming from Belgrade for a peaceful dialogue with the mediation of the EU and the Venice Commission. At the time of this writing, the situation remained tense. Obviously, we are in for another turbulent year in and around the Balkans.