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Letter from the President: The Powder Keg Of Europe: a New Perspective

The leading article in the Globe and Mail of March 22, entitled “This Brutal Century”, recalled how the First World War, originally sparked by a conflagration in the powder keg of Europe (as the Balkans were then called), precipitated in the words of Bertrand Russell, “a whole population, hitherto peaceable and humane, down the deep slope to primitive barbarism”. The hostilities of 1914, noted the Globe and Mail, ‘began the first major war in Europe in 100 years and set the scene for decades of depravity everywhere”.

Having just come back from the Balkans, I turned my mind to what I had seen and heard that might affect the perspective for peace in this hitherto tormented part of the world. Historically the Balkans have been the scene of carnage in the days when military power was based upon land forces and when this region provided the routes for the struggle for power between contending Empires at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

The occasion of my visit was the 110th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano. My grandfather negotiated and signed this treaty on March 3, 1878 at the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War. The Bulgarian government have declared this day to be a public holiday to commemorate the liberation of the Bulgarians from more than five hundred years of Turkish rule.

Where does this historic diplomatic event fit into current events? Bulgaria, because of its strategic geographic location, was the victim of the concept of the balance of power, as played in the last century by the “Concert of Europe”, set up originally to redefine and maintain the boundaries of Europe in the era after the massive impact of the Napoleonic wars which ushered in the 19th century. Russia’s role in the defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armee in his catastrophic campaign of 1812, immortalized by Tolstoy in his War and Peace, led eventually to the Crimean War in which Britain joined with 4.- France in trying to reduce Russian power and build up a counter-force, notably through a united Germany. In justifying the Crimean War to the House of Commons in London, the Prime Minister said that the British were fighting “to maintain the independence of Germany and of all European nations”.

The Congress of Berlin which was assembled to revise the Treaty of San Stefano was again used to reduce the power of Russia and build up not only Germany but also the power of Turkey as a counter-balance to Russia. Instead of addressing the burning problems of conflicting nationalisms in the Balkans which were to turn the region into a powder-keg, the Congress of Berlin took the short-term expedient of forcing concession on the Bulgarians and the Russians, leaving succeeding generations to pay the price.

That the concept of the balance of power did not prevent wars and bloodshed was emphasized in the Globe and Mail editorial: “Some 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in the Second World War, as six million Jews and others were systematically killed in Nazi murder factories. That war ended with the vengeful fire-bombing of Dresden and atomic explosions over Japan which demonstrated that 70,000 people can die in one second”.

The fact that the demoralization and destruction of civilian populations is the main objective of modern war has been underlined by a morbid survey of the Economist of London, which in a recent article estimated that “17 million people have lost their lives in conflicts since World War II ranging from Vietnam to Lebanon”.

History admittedly is affected in its interpretation by one’s political bias. I approached this Bulgarian anniversary with a certain amount of scepticism fearing that I would be exposed to Communist propaganda. To my surprise the historical perspective I was exposed to was based upon serious scholarship, tinged with a predictable pride in what had been achieved by a relatively small population inhabiting a beautiful but predominantly mountainous country. The celebrations focussed mainly on the impact of war on civilians in Bulgaria as well as their gratitude to their Russian liberators. I was particularly moved by attending the special religious service in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which included a memorial service for those who had died for the liberation of Bulgaria. The cathedral was packed, the polyphonic singing of the large mixed choir was of a haunting beauty. The presence of the Patriarch of Bulgaria accompanied by the whole Bulgarian Synod, added solemnity to an occasion that obviously evoked an emotional response from the packed congregation. I was personally welcomed by those who were close to me as a representative of their forefathers and therefore as a “brother” as some called me — not “a comrade”.

The cult of forefathers which is allotted an important place in the Bulgarian outlook does not apparently interfere with a close linkage with children and the future generations. At two schools bearing the name of my grandfather I was surrounded by friendly young faces eager to hear about Canada as well as to see a descendant of one who was numbered among their ‘forefathers”. Even more impressive was the park for the children of the world, established at the foot of Mount Vitosha. It is called the Park of Peace and is dedicated to “creativity, friendship and peace” among all children of the world. Each country is permanently represented by a bell and when the children come together, I am told they try to develop some harmony from the cacophony of bells ringing and finding their echo on the Vitosha mountain-side. I was shown the Canadian bell which I hope contributes to some harmony.

Most important of my impressions is that the concept of balance of power is so obviously obsolete in an age where military power is no longer decisive because war can escalate to dimensions that risk mutual suicide. Recognizing this, the countries of the Balkans have just met in Belgrade and opened a dialogue on the possibilities of constructive cooperation including a move towards a possible common market and eventually even a nuclear-free zone for the Balkans. The powder barrel of Europe may yet set an example of “Perestroika” in action. As we approach the 21st century, there is some hope of having learnt something from the experiences of ‘this brutal century”.

George Ignatieff

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