By Filippo Romeo
Geopolitics, the study of how spatial dimension impacts on and affects states’ politics, may offer an important contribution to analysing strategies suited to developing rail infrastructures beween Italy and the Balkans.
The Balkan idea sets and fixes the concepts and definitions between real and ideological, so as to generate a counterposition of geographical and geopolitical concepts.
While in some cases the term “Balkans” does refer to a mountainous system, in others the definition tends to stretch to indicate the peninsula, or an area of chronic instability, a Europe powder keg or Continent underbelly, to the point of being used to decline a value judgement (consider the expression “Balkanization”, a paradigm used in other geographical contexts characterised by political instability.)
The peculiarity of this space, which was for centuries a vehicle for great migrations, wars, traffic and cultural exchange, is provided by its physical form, which made it a fault, or point of contact, between different areas (Western and Eastern), religious and cultural models (Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and orthodoxy), as well as between two opposing economic models. The Balkans, observing a map, further present a triple “personality” in short distances: Mediterranean and maritime along the coast, Central-European in the Southern plains, Balkan in the continental mass. The ethnic mosaic, another concept linked to the Balkans, seems, then, to represent a sole aspect linked to a wider context, characterised by being complex and fragmentary.
The counterpositions and tensions distingishing this area, crossing and subject to external yearning, differently renewed each year till today, appeal to long-term factors in European history, but mainly to insular, peripheral peculiarities and peculiarities of the closed spaces characterising them. These conditions actually made it hard to create and develop a proto-national awareness based on territorial consciousness deriving from urban, borgeouis culture. In contrast, the varied stratification of urban cultures have given rise to various identifying paths, on which Balkan nationalisms, mainly characterised by elements such as ethnocentrism and xenophobia, were built. Affermation of new nations was actually based predominantly on the glue of purification from elements foreign to the natural Group. Such nationalist drives, on which foreign powers ambiguously weave cultural and geopolitical influence so as to erode definitively the authority of the Ottoman Empire and the institutional base it set up, will turn the Balkans into an area for European powers’ rivalries to clash (interposed). In the same way one may remember how the unification of the Balkans was only possible with intervention by the Sultan’s foreign power. One may indeed state the history of these territories, proceeding in the same direction as geography, characteised by complexity and diversity, reinforced certain peculiar traits such as diffidence towards the State, reinforced cultural identities and weak territorial attachment, mainly linked to the field of the small natural region.
Such phenomena reappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of great multinational entities (the dissolvement of the USSR and Yugoslavia), which led to new races to fill empty spaces, hence giving rise to Yugoslav secession wars, which were – not by chance – situated on the ridge of a great geopolitical transition.
Europe – in some way agent for intervention in the US area to follow its own strategic interests – failed to take concrete action, and this not only hindered the search for a solution, but also furthered the existing conflicts, until one may call the area a “geopolitical hotbed”.
All this went on while the Community in Europe was trying to find a common market and negotiate the Maastricht Treaty to create an Economic_Monetary Union. So this crisis created a threat for the European constituting order, and also represented a failed chance for Europe to show it exists and can act as a great power.
It is clear that if the policy of a dynamic era like this one can exploit the evolved communication system so as to spread or compromise spaces and adopt names, concepts and strategic doctrines that do not correspond to previous geography, it still cannot change geography itself, or what man accumulated on the land for millennia, from an urban, economic, infrastructure, ethnic and political point of view.
Indeed, each strategic representation cannot ignore the powerful bonds created by geography and history. In our age’s geo-history, the “Balkan hinge”, whose borders often divided historians, refers to an idea of a firmly delineated area rather than a great geographical region (is the natural border the Balkan chain or the Danube? Do Rumania or Slovenia belong? Turkey and Greece?) and occupies a European area represented by countries that entered the EU or are have been nominated to. For simplification, this area’s central core may be represented by the triangle of Belgrade-Thessaloníki-Sophia. Under the strictly geopolitical profile, one may state even today the Balkans do not constitute a unified system, but they are very fragmented in both North-South and East-West directions. With the exception of Slovenia, and partly Croatia – for historical reasons tighly linked to Central Europe – the region may be subdivided into Western, Southern and Eastern Balkans. The first area is geopolitically characterised by the contrast between Serbia and Croatia to spread its influence to Bosnia and Herzegovina; the second by the Albanese issue and influence from Greece; the third has special features and is formed of States bathed by the Black Sea.
Europe has, then, the duty to integrate this area by a development and regional interconnection strategy that focuses on a solid infrastructural transport network, a tool that is fundamentally important in that it is suited to facilitate and raise economic interexchange and the cultural “contaminations” necessary to yield that European spirit of belonging, useful to create consolidated continental awareness, embryo for true, structured political union. Trans-Balkan circulation (consider the Danube axis, or Via Egnatia, the Ljubljana-Belgrade axis, and Istanbul therefrom) historically represented an element able to unify the region’s various populations, in contrast to country and state atomising, favouring creation of an integrated whole, unifying the Balkans and linking them to the world. The circulation networks, then, represent a fundamental element, especially in this era of multi-pole geopolitical transition.
It is actually true that planning any infrastructural system can hardly ignore the global geopolitical and geoeconomic picture, even more so in the current context, where continental infrastructures constitute an essential moment for economic rebirth, able to affect both technology modernisation processes and foreign policy stability. In this regard it is important to refer to the fact that it is no accident the economic power developed recently by the Chinese colossus is supported by a series of strategic infrastructural projects useful for accompanying, protecting and raising the Country’s expansion capacity. This certainly involves the great “New Silk Way” project for land and sea, devised by Peking with the main aim of moving China close to the rest of the Euro-Asian continental mass and the Mediterranean, and also developing the inland zone, lagging behind the coastal strip.
But not only China, also other players like Russia, India, Iran and countries from Africa, ASEAN and Latin America are moving to create new communication paths.
So in the face of ths activism, experienced globally, it is good for the European front to also approach a development and regional interconnection strategy via a solid infrastructural transport network to involve all Europe and, most of all, the Balkan area. This could arise by simulating innovative initiatives to promote public – private partnership (obviously, no integration form may be painless, and to be held legitimate it must be based on consensus and acceptance by local governments).
This means the development of corridors becomes essential. For Italy in particular, corridors V and VII carry high strategic importance. Corridor V is especially important for Po Valley – Veneto outlets to the North-East. Primarily for the Trieste – Budapest route, which is central to the interests of Austria and Germany, which obviously have the understandable wish to keep intact all the Street and rail traffic using their networks, not least with regard to traffic from Southern France, the Iberian peninsula and Southern Switzerland. These flows would actually be interrupted by Corridor V, should it present better conditions than the current ones. It must also be added that improved transborder links with the Balkan area could also encouage concrete, real stabilisation and integration thereof with Europe’s Western part, freed from the (currently latent) danger of terrorism and crime. Continuing current instability would actually consolidate the proliferation of organised crime and terrorism, making the Balkan fault even more fragmented and unstable and creating an irreparable break with the sparkling Asian area which is living a period of unstoppable growth and expansion.
We must then focus on fully developing the concept of “network” to focus on creating full vertical and horizontal integration of the Europe system. This links could encourage mitigating this fragmentation which, as the opening foresaw, distinguished the history of this region, which could instead reproduce land for opportunity instead of conflict, representing at the same time an element to support Greater European integration.
Filippo Romeo is the Director of the “Infrastructure and Territorial Development” Programme, IsAG Rome.