Ioannis Michaletos
(RIEAS Junior Analyst and Coordinator for the World Security Network Foundation at Southeastern Europe Office)

Greece and Serbia are traditionally known as two nations with especially strong bonds between them, both historically and in the modern époque. According to a rather naive Western-originating and technocratic thought that wishes to categorize into definite intellectual structures every aspect of the international relations & history; the reason for the above is the common religion (Orthodox) of these two nations. Of course one has to note the bitter conflicts between Greek and Bulgarians for most of the past millennium despite the fact that both nations are predominantly Christian Orthodox. Moreover Greeks and Serbs have often antagonized each other for supremacy in the Balkans, but they have never fought between them, a phenomenal approach to a region known for the frequency and ferocity of its local conflicts.

Perhaps the reason for good relations relies more on geopolitics and in that case the placement of each country on a diametrical opposite classification. Serbia is a Continental power dominating the center of the Balkans and controlling to a great extent the flow of the Danube and the axis between the plains of Central Europe and the Aegean. Greece on the other hand is a traditional Naval power blocking the entrance to the Aegean to any power from the North and providing a blockade of the “Eastern Powers” into Europe. The combination of land and the sea in this case, provides stability to an area from Austria to Cyprus and from Italy to the Black Sea. Further, smaller Balkan power units are not capable of creating instability in the area if there is a strong Greek-Serbian axis.

The equivalent for the European geopolitical scene would be the entente between Germany and the UK. Even though it seems that there is something more than geopolitics, since there is definitely a kind of sentimental and metaphysical affinity, to the populous of the two nations that are not fully aware of the “Higher politics”, but assume of themselves as the true inheritors of the “Grandest Empire ever”, the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine).

The first Serb-Greek historical interaction dates back in the mid-7th Century A.D when the first Serbian tribes ventured to the south and were granted certain privileges by the then Constantinople Emperors. Their societal organization was based in the zadruga extended family lines, and they were apt in securing the frontline of the Empire. A century later they became Orthodox Christians by the monks Cyrilos & Methodius that introduced them into the Byzantine culture and ethos. Soon enough the accelerating social impact of Christianity provided the Serbs with the intellectual means of creating a nation state by 1000 and became sovereign. There were quite a few intermixtures between the aristocracy of the Byzantine Greeks and the Serbian princes, along with considerable exchange of population and norms.

Stefan Nemayia, who ruled Serbia in the last quarter of the 12th Century became the first universally recognized ruler of the country and in 1217 Serbia became a Kingdom, one of the oldest and most enduring in Europe. In 1219 the Serbian Church was granted the privilege of Autocephaly by the Greek Patriarchy and the coming years revealed the golden century in the artistic and cultural sphere in the Serbian life. The influence of Byzantium became greater and the Serbian kings fully adopted Constantinople’s costumes, portraying themselves as a second power in the Balkans. During Stefan Dousan’s hegemony in 1330’s Serbia extended its reach to a great part of modern day Balkans and it was proclaimed briefly as an Empire of “Serbs& Romans”. It seemed that the Serbs were about to merge themselves with the Greeks and replace the ageing Byzantium as the first force in modern-day Balkans.

The appearance of the Ottoman Turks and the battle in Kosovo Polje in 1389 created the conditions for a Muslim rule across the lands and in 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Turks, whilst in 1459 Belgrade became a part of the new Ottoman rule. The period of the Sultan’s rule was characterized by an antithesis between Greeks and Serbs due to the formers extensive influence in the ecclesiastical affairs through the use of the Patriarch in Constantinople. Especially after 1756 and the abolition of the Pec –Serbian Patriarchy, the Greeks became the center of the Orthodox Church in the Balkans, and as a result there was continuous resentment by the Serbs and the Bulgarians and in a greater scale by the emerging Russian Empire.

Moreover the 18th Century witnessed an impressive exodus of Greeks to the north and in Serbian populated regions, as merchants and middle-class professionals. In Central Europe as well and in cities such as Vienna, Budapest and Trieste, an affluent class of Greek-Serbians appeared who shared the same religion, customs and they had the same drive of liberating their countries from the Islamic rule. The Greek activist and intellectual “Rigas Fereos” drew the plan of a “Balkan democracy” in the 1790’s and under the influence of the French revolution. He was executed by the Turkish authorities in Belgrade and became an emblem for both nations as a visionary of his time.

The Serbian revolutions against the Turks (1804, 1813) and the Greek (1821), had as a result the destruction of the Balkan Ottoman rule. Also they revealed the cooperation between the two nations since significant chieftains in both nations assisted each other towards the common aim. Until the mid-19th century Greece seemed not interested in joining Serbia into a common front against the remaining Ottoman Empire and relied into Western assistance, a notion that proved futile. In Serbia, the leading politician Ilija Garasanin (1812-1874), who was educated in a Greek school in Zemoun, believed that only cooperation with the Greeks, “Dogovor’s Grcima” would provide the opportunity of liberating the Balkan Christian lands.

Attempts to establish common ties between those states, took place. At that period the disintegration process that already was taking place in the Ottoman Empire, culminated in an ever -expanding nationalism in smaller states like Serbia and Greece. In 1867 in Voslau the first official Greek-Serbian agreement was signed. It didn’t specify any particular details as far as territorial politics were concerned but it was the first important stage for a common strategy against the Ottoman Empire. It also stated the need for further Balkan cooperation by including Bulgaria, Montenegro and possibly Romania.

As the years progressed the balance of powers changed in the region and Bulgaria gained a strong foothold in the wider Macedonian area, with the Saint Stefan treaty (1878), and the revisionist Berlin one (1881). That was an incentive for further initiatives for closer ties between the two discussed states and in 1885, informal negotiations were held in Belgrade where spheres of influence were drawn and Serbia for the first time requested to control a free zone in Thessaloniki’s port thus recognizing indirectly Greece’s position for a claim in the city. During that period a political entity called “Saint Savvas” was formed in Belgrade under the guidance of Svetomir Nikolajevic who had strong amenity with Serbia’s royal family, and was calling for stronger relations with Greece.

The 1890’s timeline brought increasing hopes from Greece’s side for the creation of an official Athens- Belgrade axis, and for that reason the Greek Premier Trikoupis visited Belgrade in 1891, while the following year Djordjevic the Serbian one held talks in the Greek capital. The conclusions derived from those talks was that Serbia stated its interests for Southern Serbia-Currently FYR-Macedonia- and proposed a common line against future claims by the Bulgarian side in those areas. Despite original Greek interest the destructive 1897 war for Greece against the Ottomans dwarfed all plans, whilst Serbians went on negotiating with the Bulgarians under Russian auspices, which at that period aspired of gaining a strong presence in the region.

A very important as well as constructive approach to the relation of the two states is their individual relations with the third interested party, in Balkan territories and that is Bulgaria. Historically when Bulgaria seemed to grow stronger Greek-Serbian relations cemented and vice versa. It is a purely power- politics attribute that can be seen in many parts of the world when there are three powers striving for local dominance. That also concludes to the Macedonian question, and that is who is going to control the whole of the historical territory (As it was in antiquity), of Macedonia. It is the most important part of the Balkans due to the fact that is a land platform that connects the Aegean sea with the inland and contains various and numerous amounts of precious metals like gold, uranium, nickel, chromium, zinc etc. Last but not least individual relations and cooperation in SE.

Europe in the 19th century as in the 21st strongly and sometimes vitally, depend on the wider rivalries of larger powers that were concerned on how to solve the all timely “Eastern question”, in which the Macedonia question is a parallel string and cannot be viewed by itself, as a local multiparty conflict. It would be wise to illustrate this state of affairs by paraphrasing a great historical leader; it is an enigma trapped in a wider riddle whose cords seem to trace back in the outer past.

The Balkan wars in 1912-13 found Serbia and Greece fighting along side and expanding their territories considerable and in parallel annihilating Bulgarian plans for Balkan dominance. They could be described as the high time of collaboration between the two states. During WW1, Serbia fought ferociously against the Germans-Austrians and Bulgarians, and Greece after a civil strife that lasted 2 years took the side of the Entente against the “European Continental Powers”. The victory of the allies found Serbia pursuing its grandest plan “Yugoslavia”, whilst Greece attempted a thrust into Anatolia, by sending an expedition force in an attempt to rebirth the Byzantine Empire, and with the help of the British Empire who viewed Greece at that time as an important factor for its plans in the Middle East. The collapse of this ambitions in 1922, created the necessary conditions for an introvert Greek foreign policy for years to come.

Serbia on the other side was inflicted by a series of internal antagonisms between Croats, Slovenians and Serbians and at the same time it was affiliated with the French Empire, a fact that cooled the relations with Greece. For most of the interwar period Belgrade and Athens were the most important nations in the Balkans and were apt in sabotaging each other ambitions in gaining greater strength in the locale. WW2 was the common cause that united the two nations again and against the German and Italian imperialism. The imposition of the Communist regime by Tito in 1945 and his support towards the Greek Communist guerillas (1946-49) drifted the two countries apart.

It should not be forgotten that Tito imagined himself as the leader of the Balkans and his aims were turned against the Serbs and the Greeks. For that reason the creation of the “Macedonia Socialist Republic” was a perfect geopolitical aim in securing a buffer zone between Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians, thus being able in exerting influence in all of these nations. The death of Tito in 1980 and the resurrection of the suppressed Serbian nationalism, fitted with the view of Greece in supporting the Serbs against a possible Albanian or Bulgarian atavism being created by the collapse of the “Socialist paradise” in the late ‘80’s.

The present article will not examine the last 15 years and the well known empowerment of the Greek-Serbian relationship. What it is going to be noted though, is the realistic policy that was synthesized by the affinity of both nations and prevented the spread of the conflict in Southern Balkans. Despite the fact that postmodern historical analysis blames for all catastrophes Serbia and blames Greece for its support; the containment of any Bulgarian ambitions, the neutralization of Turkey and Middle Eastern Islamic states, the blockade of the sentimental and primitive Albanian nationalism and the halting of any Italian ambitions were through the use of an Athens-Belgrade axis. Otherwise the bloodshed in the Balkans would still continue and the region would resemble a European replica of Iraq or the tribal landscape of Afghanistan.

The two nations were both inheritors and proprietors of Empires and a tremendous cultural legacy stretching backing in the antiquity. Therefore they have the ability to pursue their aims without the hastiness or ignorance of other national units that came to the international scene lacking the concrete historical basis that will provide them with the ability to look into the inner dealings of international affairs. Thus they tend to superficially adapt their behavior based on illusions of grandeur or intellectual superstitions irrelevant to the course of human history.

The stability, peace and prosperity of the Balkans is founded on the continuation of a communication line between Greeks and Serbs that have managed to keep the balance in the Peninsula for quite some time. Certainly, despite the coming historical-structural changes they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, amid interruptions by amateurish attempts to “Experiment” with history and tradition by “Outside powers”.

Indicative sources:

1) Evangelos Koufos, “Dilemmas and orientations of Greek policy in Macedonia, 1878-1886”.
2) E. Kofos “Greek-Serbian relations and the question of Macedonia, 1879-1896
3) Petar Milosavljevic “Greek- Serbian cooperation 1830-1908”
4) Konstantinos Vakalopoulos “Modern ethnological boundaries of Hellenism in the Balkans”
5) Stefanos Sotiriou "Greeks & Serbs"

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