Neoslavism, Balkan Federation and Social Democracy

by Janko Sakasoff

Janko Sakasoff, Neoslavism, Balkan Federation and Social Democracy, Der Kampf, IV, 5, 1 February 1911.
This article was translated by Dave Renton (+ thanks to Claudia Blühm) but, for reasons of space, was, with some others, could not be included in
Revolutionary History, Vol.8 No.3 which was devoted to the Balkan Socialist Tradition, 1871-1915.

The Balkan people do not seem to be very susceptible to the ideological temptations of the lackeys of Russian absolutism. The old Panslavism did not find its way into the hearts of the Balkan people. The idea of an alliance of all Slavs, naturally under the leadership of the strongest Russian branch, grew only now and then in the educated circles of the bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 1860s, but neither in the mass of the people nor in the leading political classes of the bourgeoisie did this idea find a strong following. There were instead other ideas that dominated the Balkan peoples in the second half of the nineteenth century. The oldest and most widespread of these was the idea of an independent struggle against the Turkish yoke, that came to light in local and general revolts. With the strengthening of the Turkish central power and with the modernisation of warfare, that idea was gradually accompanied by two others. One was an ideology of a federation of all Balkan peoples, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians, in order to smash Turkish power and distribute the inheritance among themselves. The other idea was very practical and at the same time helpless, the mystical hope of release and liberation through Russia. Here is not the place to explain how all these ideas followed one another. It is enough to say that they were closely tied to, on the one hand, the state of the power relationships in the Balkans, and on the other, to the now open, now secret propaganda of Russian agents [1] ...

The idea of Balkan federation, which has received so much attention in recent times, experienced a different fate. It emerged with an astonishing force, in every Balkan country, shortly after the Turkish revolution of 1908. As in Turkey people were embracing each other fraternally, so the idea grew of a united federation of small Balkan states, including free, constitutional Turkey, to halt the expansion of the great powers in the North and the West. It was astonishing how fast this idea spread, and how it entered into the deepest levels of the people.

But the later events, the absence of real reform in Turkey, the contemptuous attitude of the Young Turk regime towards Bulgaria, the proclamation of independence and then the annexation of Bosnia, destroyed all these nice dreams of the Balkan people. It is true that the idea of federation was encouraged by the highest officials during the crisis, and that the Russian Foreign Minister Isvolsky recommended this idea in front of the Duma. But Russia had hardly thought seriously of a true Balkan union, because its leaders’ first action would have been to turn on her. As the self-styled ‘Protector of the Slavs’, Russia would have very much welcomed a federation of these states, which would have been directed against Austria and would have been a toy in the hands of Russia at the same time. But a free federation, sufficient in itself, would not have suited Russia. Such a federation might have controlled the Balkan peninsula and the Bosphorous, and could not have been without influence, on the integrity of the Turkish regions in Asia. In effect, the rumour was officially spread, during the later Bulgarian crisis, that Russia would consider any federation with Turkey to be directed against her. But a federation just between the Balkan states – Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro – would have a character too obviously anti-Austrian to be tolerated. The zeal with which the Austrian government press followed any rumour of an alliance between Serbia and Bulgaria, showed clearly enough that Vienna and Budapest would never consent to such a federation.

Thus the idea of a Balkan federation remained far from government circles in the Balkan states, and only the opposition groups, from the radical bourgeoisie to the social democrats, could think of it and believe in it.

But strangely enough, no matter how much the people liked this idea, no matter how much it seemed justified politically, still its realisation remained distant. The Young Turks spoke fondly of the fraternity of Balkan nations, but in reality, they conducted a brutal domestic policy which meant that the nationalities in Turkey were held as far away as possible from self-determination. The Bulgarians adhered to an idea of a federation of the Balkan people, but for them it meant that the Macedonians would attain the status of an autonomous and independent member of the federation, which would open up for them the markets and ports of Turkey. And what could the Serbs make of this idea? Perhaps an alliance of Bosnia with their kingdom and the opening of the Turkish border in the direction of old Serbia and the Aegean Sea! But the Romanians, even in the spring of the Turkish rebellion, were hardly caught up in the enthusiasm, and if they might find some advantage in this idea of a federation, that would hardly be the absorption of the Romanians of Transylvania into their kingdom, but rather that Bulgaria renounced the Siliastra-Rustschuk-Varna triangle – to the profit of the Romanian crown.

Anyway, the more that one approached this idea of federation, the more that one realised that like an illusion it always flew further and further away.

We have already seen that the nice dreams of the Balkan people were destroyed by events which took place straight after the Turkish revolution. The respective governments have to take notice of established facts, and they could not launch themselves into a different future, no matter how close it seemed. We cannot expect from them the realisation of the federation. But are the other circles of the bourgeois opposition, battle-prepared, then, to make such a step? So long as they remain in the opposition they can believe honestly in working to achieve a federation, but the moment they come to power, they would have to become aware of the very same difficulties as their predecessors. And in effect, the opposition circles regard federation as a beautiful idea, certainly, but not something which can actually be realised at the moment. In removing in this way, one after the other, the different opposition layers, the only groups left in favour of federation are the radical left and the social democrats, who showed themselves on the political stage to be the true champions of the idea.

But can this idea of Balkan federation ever be realised? The fact that it is popular among the people and the intelligentsia, does not prove that it can be practical, because first of all, many utopian ideas are popular, and second, this popularity might have one reason among one people, and a quite different meaning with another.

So what is the basis for the attraction of the idea of Balkan federation? People typically think along the following lines: the small Balkan states are the victims of the great powers. If they were united they would possess a larger economic area, a stronger political force for their defence, considerably less state costs, and a more peaceful development towards outside countries. In this nice image, it is the Bulgarians who would welcome especially a stronger economic region, but seems hardly true for the Young Turks or the Serbs. The Young Turks would prefer that the federation gave them a greater political power, but they would also like the right to use this power against the other members of the federation, and especially against their own constituent nations. The Serbs would welcome a stronger economic area, but only with the goal of being able to export their own raw goods to neighbouring countries, without being constrained to take the finished goods of their neighbours back into their own country. As you see, the different political situations and levels of development in the Balkan countries, do not permit of a common interpretation of federation, and deeply influence the attitude of the different nations towards the idea.

One must also add a very fundamental reason which makes the idea of federation undesirable to the ruling classes of the Balkan nations. This resides in the social constitutions of these layers, and the possibility of their arriving better and more easily to their goals without the help of a federation, or even against one. There is no doubt that the Turkish oligarchy would have everything to fear from a federation. Turkey could not maintain her aspirations for power without the aid of a great power that would support her dominance and exploitation within her empire. It would be naive to expect that the Turks, young or old, will be so enthusiastic for the deceptive peaceful development, or for the reduction of the expenses of their state, which the federation may offer them, that they would forget the immediate conditions of their class. Let us look now at the governing parties in Bulgaria, which are certainly more democratic than the Young Turks, and which drape themselves so willingly in the language of peaceful economic development! Is there a doubt that they would always prefer to take as large a piece as possible of a foreign country, in order to place the surplus of their theft somewhere more advantageously and with less danger? And all these expenses of militarism and bureaucracy, do they not constitute for these classes a sufficient goal, which would give them a big opportunity to enrich themselves, in one way or another? The present animosity between the Balkan peoples suits these classes, in that it allows them to maintain society in a condition of permanent insecurity, and thus keep away the lower levels of people from participation in the government and the state. To nourish these convictions, there are so many members of the powerful classes, all around the Balkans. It is superfluous to describe here the true tendencies of the ruling classes in Serbia. In all the Balkan countries, the ruling classes are against the idea of federation.

On what basis should we pose the idea of a federation, and who can realise it? We do not see the social forces which might work for its realisation. There exists, it is true, a radical democracy and a social democracy, which work very energetically for the alliance of the Balkan peoples. But the radicals drop their ideas, one after the other, the closer that they approach towards power and take over the respective interests of the ruling classes. As for the social democrats, if they are able to exercise a determining influence on the governments, they will have more urgent tasks than the realisation of an artificial idea of a state. Yes, if the idea of federation was on the route of Balkan development, if the conditions for the construction of this state were fulfilled in each Balkan country, and in the situation of the entire political co-operation of south-eastern Europe, it would not be impossible for two or three countries close to one another in a favourable situation and powered by a popular referendum, to be able to realise political union with each other, or even a federation. But in the actual state of things, seeing the development of the single nations, how the decisive influence of the politics of the interested great powers are acting, it is absolutely excluded to think of a federation of the Balkan people, and one most of all, which would include Turkey. The very maximum which one could expect from the actual situation would be an alliance between Serbia and Bulgaria, which would include besides a customs unions and certain forms of political association. But the governments of these countries can not even come to this result, and the interested great powers will hardly allow such a union.. And an alliance between Serbia and Bulgaria would still be far from being a democratic federation of the Balkan states!

The idea of Balkan federation, as utopian as it may be, still for a certain time, may serve well to aid the peace in the Balkans, and the agitation of socialists for the rapprochement of the Balkan people. Faced with the rabid explosion of nationalism, faced with an insatiable taste for pillage of the ruling classes of all Balkan nations, propaganda in favour of the idea of Balkan federation offers to the popular masses a real and tangible alternative to the rivalries and problems in the Balkans. This idea is taken up with enthusiasm by the working class, by the peasants, by the petit bourgeoisie, and even by numerous sections of the ruling class, and equally by the intelligentsia. Unfortunately, each day which passes removes from this idea a little more of its appeal. Global realpolitik, conducted by all sides in the East, and the rapid change in domestic and foreign circumstances which has the effect of demonstrating the practicalities or not of all new ideas, rapidly undermines the foundations also of the idea of Balkan federation. Very few people, even among the socialists, believe in the participation of the Turks in a federation. The Romanians, solidly associated with Triple Alliance, and little interested in a Balkan federation, can be excluded from the beginning from this combination. Only the Bulgarian and the Serbs still possess an interest in such an alliance. And if people persist in encouraging Balkan federation, without taking account of the changes in the situation, they strongly risk the possibility of finding themselves the plaything of the bourgeois parties or of the tendencies within a certain great power. Soon one detects, in the general idea of federation, an unravelling of the idea of freedom in favour of the nationalist feelings of the ruling classes, and the further one goes, the sharper this side of the federation appears. No matter how democratic-republican it might be, a socialist programme including the demand of Balkan federation, risks very rapidly, given the so-dynamic situation in the Balkans, the danger of being used against the free development of the people themselves and to play involuntarily the same game as the dominant reactionary politics of the powers, Balkan or greater. All these facts impose on the Balkan socialists the obligation to review the idea of a federation between their countries, and to give it a practical content. Hopefully it will happen, when the meeting of all the socialist representatives of the Balkans takes place.



The pan-Slav idea of the old Russian absolutism was too far removed from the political needs of the Balkan people. The neo-Slavism of the Russian and Czech constitutional parties suffers from the same weakness as its predecessors and remains without influence on the Balkan peoples. These ideological fictions seem to be more adapted to the needs of the Slav peoples of central Europe, rather than the needs of the southern Slavs. By contrast, the Balkan federation was born in the needs of the bourgeois parties, and in particular those of the Southern Slavs, Serbia and Bulgaria, and is ignored by the other Slav countries as well as the other Balkan people – Turks, Greeks and Romanians. The real evolution of South-East Europe undermines all these racial fictions and national ideologies, and wipes the slate clean for another idea of the state, a socialist state, whose forms cannot yet be defined, but whose contents will include the rapprochement and fraternity of all people,including those of South-East Europe.

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Translator’s note

1. This first paragraph is followed by a further five paragraphs describing the early history of the idea of Balkan Federation.federation. Such background matter is not central to Sakasoff’s argument, and has been left out here.

Updated by ETOL: 22.5.2004