Athens Conference Summary

An international conference in Athens

On May 27-29, 2011 LSE IDEAS, in cooperation with Konstantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy, held a three day international conference entitled Balkans in the Cold War in Athens, Greece. After a year of intense preparation, the conference succeeded in bringing together prominent scholars from almost all the countries of the Balkan region, as well as the USA, Britain and Russia, such as Ivo Banac (Yale University), Lorraine Lees (Old Dominion University), Mark Kramer (Harvard University), Arne Westad (LSE), Svetozar Rajak (LSE), Milan Ristovic (University of Belgrade), Tvrtko Jakovina (University of Zagreb), Jordan Baev (Racovsky Defence and Staff College). Divided in seven thematic panels that covered the whole period between 1945 and 1991, the conference examined comprehensively topics, such as the role of Balkans in the creation of the Cold War World Order (panel I); issues relating to culture, perceptions and identity (panel II); security and military alliances (panel III); the role of ideology (panel IV); the uneasy relations with superpowers (panel V) and between neighbours (panel VI) and, finally the impact of Détente on the region.

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The Balkans: a lacuna in the historiography

The discussions during the conference pointed to a striking lacuna in the historiography. Although, there has been voluminous writing on the role of the Cold War in the Balkans especially in the beginning of the period, the role of the Balkans in the Cold War has been extensively overlooked.  Professor Thanassis Sfikas argued that the reason lies in the simple fact that, 'the history of the Cold War was more important for the history of the Balkans, than was the history of the Balkans to the history of the Cold War'. The ensuing discussion suggested that although one must not fall into a trap of exaggerating the role of the region in the Cold War neither should the impact of regional developments be underrated and left under researched. The initial divisions and resulting tragic conflicts within the region, following the end of the Second World War were primarily the product of the 'great ideological divide of the Twentieth century' and the emerging American –Soviet rivalry. The superpower dispute between 1945 and 1952 turned the Balkans into a laboratory for the competition between Soviet-supported communism and the 'Free World' and elevated regional dynamics to the forefront of the inter-bloc tensions. Uniquely for the global Cold War system, however, this led not to a simple bipolar but to a fourfold division of the region: the Western bloc, the Soviet bloc, the non-aligned Yugoslavia and, as of 1961, the Chinese allied Albania. After Hungarian events in 1956, the Cold War tensions moved away from the region and the impact of regional dynamics diminished. 

The advent of the Cold War and the military build up froze the previous Balkans fragmentation seemingly rendering the area a zone of relative peace. This was reflected in the academic literature that lost interest in examining the period between mid-1950s and the end of the Cold War. Only with the outbreak of the civil wars in Yugoslavia, did the Balkans take central stage again.

In tune with recent Cold War historiography and encouraging for the regional historiography, a number of papers in the conference dealt with the usually ignored decades of the 1970s and 1980s. As the nascent historiography of the collapse of Yugoslavia is increasingly suggesting, this apparently 'stable' and 'uninteresting' period of the 'fading' of the Cold War in the region, allowed for the rise of nationalism that would lead to the convulsions of the 1990s. No wonder therefore that the necessity to look at the internal processes of the Balkans during this period, and to analyse them from new angles such as the economic and social perspective, surfaced repeatedly. Echoing similar sentiments, there was an intense call for the further opening of the archives of the Balkan countries as the only way to readdress open issues. In contrast to the impressive opening of archives in the former Soviet Bloc countries and in Serbia,  the access to Greek and in particular Turkish archives remains very restricted.
Besides the emerging consensus on the need to examine the period between the outbreak and end of the Cold War by adapting a multi-disciplinary and cross-thematic analysis, and multi-archival approach, the conference participants initiated a number of interesting questions. How far could the Cold War explain the post-Cold War realities and developments in the region? Did the freezing of the inter-Balkan divisions exacerbate nationalistic sentiments, therefore partly explaining the intensity of the warfare in Yugoslavia? What was the impact of the modernization of societies achieved during the Cold War? All of these questions and fruitful discussions provided the platform for the BIAP's next project that will concentrate on the post Cold War period in the Balkans.  In the meantime, the conference proceedings will be compiled in an edited volume and interviews with a number of Conference participants are available on LSE IDEAS BIAP Website.

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A step forward

Lastly, preparations of the Conference and its proceedings were a testament to the importance of cooperation between regional institutions and research centres focusing on the Balkans. In this respect, the cooperation between LSE IDEAS BIAP and the Konstantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy constitutes a shining example and will further promote cooperation of this kind.  We at LSE IDEAS BIAP wish to thank Professors Konstantina Botsiou, Evanthis Hatzivassiliou and their team for helping make this project such a success and for their wonderful hospitality during the days of the Conference. At the same time, we wish to express our gratitude to the institutions who have made this event possible; The LSE Annual Fund, ELLAKTOR and Aegean Oil.

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