Situated on a critical pivot-point between Europe and Asia, the Balkan Peninsula has long been a zone of competing influence among powerful states and empires from both East and West. This competition for influence led to a seemingly never-ending cycle of conflict that began as the decline of the Ottoman Empire accelerated during the 19th century, and largely continued until the late 1990’s when the fallout from the breakup of Yugoslavia was finally brought under control via a series of NATO interventions. Since then, the “powder-keg” of Europe—as the region has long been referred to—has, with a few exceptions, seen a period of almost unprecedented calm. Recent events, however, may threaten to upset this delicate balance of power and influence that has been achieved in the region over the past two decades.
Earlier this month, an important international soccer match being played out between the Albanian and Serbian national teams in the Serbian capital of Belgrade was thrown into chaos after a miniature drone flying a flag of “Greater Albania,”—an Albanian nationalist conceptual territory composed of all areas in the Balkans where ethnic Albanians reside—began to buzz over the stadium. It was immediately noticed by the fans—all Serbian, due to cautionary restrictions put in place in order to prevent the breakout of violence—who were worked into a frenzy, chanting death threats and slurs directed at the Albanian players. When the drone finally flew low enough that an Serbian player was able to jump up and pull the offending flag down, all hell broke loose. A scuffle erupted between the players on both sides, and fans began to pour onto the field in order to confront the Albanian players. As punches were exchanged between players and fans and a variety of objects were hurled onto the pitch in the direction of the Albanian players, both sides were eventually forced to flee the field for their own safety. Needless to say, the match was abandoned, and is unlikely to be rescheduled anytime soon.
Conflicting reports over the responsibility for the drone stunt have emerged. An Albanian nationalist fan group is the only party to attempt to officially claim its involvement in the stunt, posting pictures and posts on social media websites in an attempt to back up their claim. The group’s credibility, however, is in question. Another more intriguing, and certainly more troubling, possibility has emerged courtesy of the Serbian media. Several sources—including Serbia’s largest newspaper, Blic—have accused Olsi Rama, the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, of being behind the drone stunt. This accusation is based on the claim that Mr. Rama was detained by Serbian police at the stadium after having been found in possession of a remote control that could have been used to pilot the device. Mr. Rama has vehemently denied this accusation, claiming a smear attempt by the Serbian authorities and media. Mr. Rama’s denial is one that seems not entirely implausible, given the clear bias of the media organizations responsible for reporting his involvement in the incident.
Regardless of the details of the stunt and the party responsible for it, what is clear is that the incident was likely not a spur of the moment bit of hijinks from an opportunistic prankster, as is commonly the case in many fan-related incidents in the footballing world. Instead, this was clearly an attempt to stir dangerous tensions between two countries with a long history of conflict, and one that easily could have escalated into more serious violence than the minor skirmishes and throwing of debris on the field that ended up occurring.
While the craziness displayed on the field on October 14 was brought under control relatively quickly, its repercussions were felt quite strongly in the days immediately following the incident, and have continued to reverberate since then. Since the match, a number of Albanian-owned businesses in Serbia have been bombed, Albanian hackers have attempted to infiltrate Blic’s website, and brawls have erupted between Albanians and Serbs in locations as disparate as Austria. The consequences of this event, however, have not just been limited to local and physical dimensions, but geopolitical ones as well.
Last week, the Albanian Prime Minister made the decision to delay his planned visit to the Serbian capital—intended to be the first by a sitting Albanian premier in close to 70 years—so as not to further stoke already high tensions. The visit has since been rescheduled until November, but the likelihood that further protests and violence—both rhetorical and physical—will accompany this event is quite high.
As the world’s attention has largely shifted away from the Balkans and towards the Middle East since the September 11 attacks, it is easy to forget that this region has been for hundreds of years one of the world’s most volatile. The international football association that scheduled and organized this game—the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)—would do well to heed the lessons that can be drawn from this region’s history, and stay away from hosting matches between these countries on non-neutral grounds, for lesser slights than this recent one have precipitated the eruption of deadly conflict between Balkan states in the past.