One of the most enduring stereotypes of European politics is the "grim" portrait of the Balkans, that powder keg of irreconcilable nationalisms, intolerance, violence, economic atrophy and fundamentalism… and that’s not counting the conflict in Kosovo. It is as though all the vices of the pre-modern era — totalitarianism and orientalism included — are still competing to define this beleaguered region which has elbowed its way to an awkward place alongside Western civilisation.

Developed countries are at a loss as to the strategy they should adopt: should they make the effort to integrate an economically backward region, and in so doing protect if from the consequences of its own backwardness, or should they leave it to its own devices and run the risk of being obliged to pay for large-scale military intervention required to resolve the crises that may result from such a policy?

Understandably eager to break free from this negative portrayal, some Balkan countries have sought to associate themselves with alternative geographical designations — thus Croatia and Slovenia’s attempt to “migrate” towards a more central European identity. From the northern side of the Danube, Romania occasionally assumes the role of “referee” of this troubled region, and there may be some justification for this position.

Sacrificed to save the "ungrateful" West

But other states which are unable to cite any argument that would allow them to define themselves as non-Balkan have set out to construct a utopian Balkan identity to replace the usual sombre portrait. The Balkans are the cradle of Europe (Did not the Balkan Greeks not even invent the word?), its salt-of-the-earth peoples the the only authentic guardians of European culture and tradition that emerged from Ancient Greece and Byzantium. And like many a founding father, the Balkans are now forced to contend with a fate close to martyrdom. Callous Western policy has turned the region into a sacrificial lamb, and neglected the long-suffering heart of Western civilisation, which only survived because the Balkans were the "ramparts" that guarded its eastern boundaries.

Balkan pride, however, does little to resolve the enduring and profound tensions that continue to beset the region. Every Balkan country believes itself to be the "true" centre of the Balkans, a situation that has engendered a vicious conflict for regional leadership, and an excessive identity-based politics which is both pathetic and derisory. To complicate things even further, we have the added dimension of the European Union’s vision of Balkans.

Brussels neither understands nor has the patience to listen

The EU would like to be benevolent, fair-minded and politically correct, but its position is often characterised by prejudice, didacticism and rigid, condescending analysis. Brussels, which has neither the time to understand or the patience to listen, is by turns excessively paternalistic — "We are best placed to know what is best for you" — or too deferential — "We cannot sit in judgement, and we have no right to impose our views" — which is just as counterproductive. The first of these attitudes is an affront to local pride, and the second is an invitation to sterile self-importance, and as a result, the acceptance of aid has proved to as troublesome as provision of aid in the first place.

Europe’s capitals have yet to replace the negative view implied by the cliché of the Balkans with a more profound knowledge of the region. If we are to "save" these countries simply because we need to protect ourselves from the possible conflict “on our door step,” we will never know what exactly we are supposed to be saving. The question should be why should we save the countries of this region, and what European values would be compromised by the failure of such an arbitrary Balkan policy? Without this perspective, the Balkans will continue, as someone once said, to be "a hell paved with the bad intentions of the Great Powers.