Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 22: Balkan politics in the Cold War years

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 22: Balkan politics in the Cold War years


Lecture 21 criticized conventional, stereotypical views of the origin of the Cold War on two grounds. First: that those views substitute conclusions for questions, then tend to overlook important facts that don’t support those conclusions. Second: that those views trivialize or ignore Balkan historical events by subordinating them to studies of decisions made in Moscow and Washington.

One can make a similar critique of conventional histories of the Cold War era as a whole. It is not that these books say something incorrect about the Balkans, but rather that they say nothing at all. Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary vanish into the Russian maw in 1945 or perhaps 1948 never to be seen again (except in the pages of some very recent books, which see them reemerge in 1989 apparently untouched). Colorful Bulgarians occasionally pass across the stage on their way to assassinate the Pope or murder some dissidents using poisoned umbrellas. For the rest, silence.

Whatever their value as histories of the Cold War of the Super-Powers, such books obviously are useless as histories of the Balkans during the last fifty years: they ignore too much. Despite “free world” concerns about “captive nations,” much of Western scholarship exhibits a massive indifference to the lives of the inhabitants of the Balkans. By placing full blame for the Cold War on the Russians, Western writers also condescend to Balkan leaders, absolving them from both responsibility and authority for events from 1945 to the present. These views have been blind as well to profound variations in Balkan political and economic life, and have created inaccurate impressions of bland uniformity. We snicker at the image of Woodrow Wilson fumbling to find Romania on a map in 1918, but it should come as no surprise that too many leaders today are still clueless about the Balkans and how to solve problems there.

Greece suffers a curious and related fate. Having escaped from Communist control, Greece next escapes from geography as well and ceases to be a part of the Balkans at all. In too many texts on “Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century,” after World War II the region ends at Greece’s northern border despite the historic roots shared by all the Balkan states from 1453 to 1945. Conventional histories of the Cold War find Greek affairs too complicated and complicating to digest and instead ignore them, apparently on the grounds that Greece joined NATO.

In fact, this approach reflects the deeply subjective nature of too much Balkan history, and the continued influence of “Balkanism” in historical writing.  If our comprehension of the Balkans derives primarily from self-referential “dualisms” (West = good / East = bad) then a free, pro-American, capitalist Greece can no longer fit into our concept of a backward Balkan region; and this is only one example.

This lecture goes out of its way to counteract such impressions, by stating or even overstating a contrary analysis of Balkan history during the bi-polar era of the Cold War. In other words, it highlights those developments that most obviously fly in the face of conventional, shallow impressions about the Balkans since World War II. For illustrative examples, we can look to Greece, Yugoslavia and Romania.


Beginning with the history of Greece, we find a revival of traditional political patterns after the war. Many post-1945 events might well have taken place with or without the backdrop of the global Western clash with Communism.

American leaders hoped and expected that Greek history in the Cold War years would follow a simple script like this: parliamentary democracy at home, economic development based on Marshall Plan aid, solidarity with NATO partners in foreign policy. Such an approach focussed too much on the distant enemy in Moscow and concerned itself too little with local and persistent Greek concerns. By ignoring old patterns of Greek political behavior, such a stance allowed them to become important even though such trends threatened to interfere with the preferred scenario.

Until 1949, it was easy for Greece’s non-Communist political leaders to work together in the domestic political arena. Until the defeat of the Communist insurgents in the Greek Civil War of 1947-49, the King and the army shared a common enemy: the same Leftist elements against whom they had been fighting since their wartime confrontations with EAM-ELAS, or even earlier. Greek anti-Communist politics in the 1940s were easily reconciled with American interests in the region.

However, after the Communist threat waned, so too did unity of purpose. In domestic politics, longstanding tensions between republicans in the army and the royal family reemerged. This is a theme not explained easily by an analysis based in a simple bi-polar view of Cold War Balkan affairs. In foreign affairs, Greece had its most serious conflicts after 1949 not with its Communist neighbors, but with its nominal NATO ally, Turkey. Again, this was a trend easily explained by reference to history, but hard to reconcile with Cold War assumptions.

The united front with Turkey was one of the first casualties of the reemergence of pre-Cold War themes. To understand Greece’s relations with Turkey, we have to spend a few moments looking at the island of Cyprus. Cyprus is not part of the Balkans, but its history has often followed parallel paths. The island was part of the Byzantine Empire, then fell under the control of the Franks, the Venetians and finally the Ottoman Turks. In 1878 it was annexed by Great Britain. In the 1950s, the island had a Greek population of 430,000, who made up the last concentrated body of Greeks living outside of Greece. The island also had a Turkish population of 95,000.

In 1954, Greece proposed the union (“enosis”) of the island with the Greek state but the British refused to allow it. A guerilla group called EOKA (the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters) then began a campaign of civil disobedience and political violence on the island in an effort to drive out the British. EOKA was led by George Grivas, a Cypriot-born former Greek army general identified with the anti-Communist forces in Greece during and after World War II. In 1955 a bomb exploded at the Turkish consulate in Salonika. This sparked anti-Greek riots in Istanbul and Izmir, and Turkey called for partitioning the island to safeguard the rights of the Turkish minority there. Instead ,Britain granted the island its independence in 1959.

An independent Cyprus was acceptable to Archbishop Makarios III, an Orthodox cleric who was the leader of the Greek community, but not to Grivas or to nationalists in Athens. In 1963, a crisis broke out over the proportion of Greeks and Turks in the Cypriot parliament, in the police and in the bureaucracy, and led to inter-ethnic violence. A United Nations peace-keeping force was inserted to forestall a Turkish invasion. Both Greece and Turkey resorted to military threats, but neither side was willing to engage in an actual war.

In the 1960s, tensions over Cyprus dove-tailed with Greek domestic political problems. Post-war politics had become a complicated three-way affair, in which George Papandreou’s Center Union party balanced between the pro-Communist United Democratic Left and Konstantin Karamanlis’ right-wing National Radical Union. When Papandreou and the center regime failed to pursue “enosis” with Cyprus, a group of middle-level Army officers (known as “the Colonels”) seized power in a coup in April 1967. When the king attempted a counter-coup in December he was driven into exile by the junta.

The military regime of Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos claimed to be inspired by anti-Communism, but three mainstays of traditional Greek politics were clearly more important: irredentism and the Megale Idea (this time aimed at Cyprus); anti-royalist sentiments among rising elements of society (in which we see the legacy of Venizelism); and intervention by the military in civilian politics (a theme since the 1909 coup).

The dictatorship of the colonels lasted until 1973 when the OPEC oil embargo led to an economic crisis. Papadopoulos responded to unrest among students and in the navy by proclaiming a republic, but was soon displaced himself by other officers. At the same time, the junta tried to shift the focus of popular discontent away from its own domestic situation by inciting international frictions over Cyprus. In July 1974, the Athens regime, EOKA and Greek officers acting inside the Cypriot military engineered a coup against Makarios, who was now President of Cyprus. The coup backfired: instead of enosis, the crisis led to a Turkish invasion of the island. Throughout the previous twenty years, the two sides had been too evenly matched for either to take such a risk, but at this time the Turks gauged Greek weakness and division accurately.

The Turkish invasion completely discredited the Athens military regime. The army repudiated the junta and civilian rule was restored. This did not lead to a restoration of the status quo on Cyprus, however. Following a de facto partition, the Turkish zone along the north coast constituted itself as a separate state. The “Turkish Federated State of Cyprus” (with 37% of the island’s area and 18% of the population) remains a source of friction between Greece and Turkey.

The Greek political landscape after 1974 continued to move along paths unconnected to bi-polar Cold War patterns. Greek voters refused to return to political models based on the 1940s. A plebiscite rejected a restoration of the monarchy. In place of the old three-sided political party landscape, elections after 1974 revolved around the rise to power of PASOK, the “Panhellenic Socialist Movement” led by Andreas Papandreou (son of the long-time Liberal and Venizelist figure Georgios Papandreou).

Based in elements that had resisted the junta, PASOK combined socialist rhetoric and populist economic promises with an anti-Turkish nationalism. Because the United States failed to support Greece during the Cyprus affair, PASOK was anti-American as well. In the 1981 elections, PASOK became the largest Greek party and Papandreou became Prime Minister, a post he held until 1989. While PASOK did not follow through on threats to leave NATO, Greece did stop participating in NATO planning and there were frequent border clashes with Turkish forces. Papandreou also broke with the Western bloc by supporting General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s military government in Poland (which repressed the Solidarity union in the early ’80s) and in general sought international neutrality.

These examples show why it is hard to explain Greek politics in the Cold War era in terms of the Soviet-American confrontation. Traditional issues — irredenta, the role of the monarchy, economic development — remained important. At the same time, Greece’s independent course is the best evidence of Greece’s secure position among the nations of the “Free World.”

Soviet satellites

Many conventional views of post-war Balkan history omit Greece, precisely because it’s “Free World” status allowed Greece to pursue policies that defied American preferences. By extension, conventional treatments of the Soviet “satellites” assume that the Socialist states of Eastern Europe and the Balkans acted within the most limited confines in their domestic and international policies. Certainly the events of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia show how far the Russians were willing to go to retain their dominant position in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, Balkan leaders often managed to pursue local and national interests, and the resulting variety of policies and trends is overlooked in stereotypical histories.

“Ideal” Communist satellites would have trimmed their domestic and international politics to suit Russian needs and wishes. In reality, the Russians constantly struggled to keep the Balkan states in line. The Russian achievement is better described as preventing Balkan disobedience, than achieving real unity of purpose.

Soviet Russia had far greater economic and military resources than did the satellites, but this did not guarantee complete control by Moscow. The Russian economy often needed help from its partners: one can point to Russian confiscation of machinery and rail stock in 1945, and the numerous joint enterprises that funneled needed resources from the Balkans to Soviet factories.

In the immediate post-war years, it was Russia’s military presence that guaranteed “loyalty.” However, military influence had its limits: for example, nuclear weapons were useless as practical tools to control unruly allies. To police the Eastern Bloc, Moscow tried to use the forces of the Bloc itself, harnessed through the Warsaw Pact. Nominally an alliance against Western enemies, its two most important campaigns were aimed against dissidents inside the Pact itself. Even in these cases, Moscow placed little trust in satellite troops: Russian troops did the hard work. Only Russian forces took part in the invasion of Hungary in 1956. During the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria sent token forces, perhaps five divisions in all: the lion’s share fell to 23 Russian divisions. Romania not only refused to take part in the 1968 invasion, but denounced what the Russians were doing; so did Yugoslavia and Albania.

The Balkan states got away with a great deal of disobedience because the Russians simply lacked the economic resources, military strength and will power to keep a constant tight grip on the Balkan states. Compared to Poland and East Germany, the Balkan region was less likely to be a decisive theater in any confrontation with NATO. Thus the Russian military presence in the area was lighter than casual observers might suppose.

In some parts of the Balkans, overt Russian occupation ended early in the Cold War. Red Army units never reached Albania, and the Red Army merely passed through Yugoslavia in 1944, never to return. The Red Army left Bulgaria in 1947. By 1949, there were only 6 Russian divisions in all of Hungary, Romania and Austria.  Russian troops left Austria after it became a neutral state in 1955, and left Romania in 1958. Thereafter, Hungary was the only Balkan state with a Russian garrison: having arrived in force in 1956, Russian troops remained there until 1991.

The Balkan problem for the Russians can be summed up in this phrase: “national roads to Communism.” Russia could help Communist Parties seize power during the 1940s, and keep them in power under the “Brezhnev Doctrine” in the 1960s, but it could not eliminate the impact of local national interests on those socialist regimes.

Disputes over “national roads to Communism” began as soon as the post-war Communist regimes were established. Communist ideas had contradictory implications when applied to so many new states. Communism was always willing to claim ties with “the people” and exploit nationalism: during World War II, loyalty to the Soviet Union and Russian patriotism were combined to great practical effect. So long as Russia was the world’s only Communist state, there was little friction between Communist and nationalist priorities. The addition of half-a-dozen new “people’s democracies” by 1948 created new problems. These Communist regimes had competing claims to ideological correctness, spoke on behalf of separate popular interests, and fought among themselves over policies that reflected inescapable national priorities.


This problem of “national communism” came into play in 1948 when Yugoslavia became the first Communist state to break with Russia. In the immediate post-war years Tito had followed exuberant policies of his own making. He confronted the Western powers over claims to the port city of Trieste and border regions on the Slovene-Austrian border; tried to build a Yugoslav-led Balkan federation through a system of bi-lateral treaties with neighboring states; planned a virtual protectorate over Albania by means of a common currency and joint economic enterprises; and asked the Russians to pay for rapid industrial expansion and agricultural improvements for Yugoslavia.

Stalin blocked Tito’s plans, citing the need for a post-war period of recovery, but in fact Stalin expected Communist Yugoslavia to subordinate itself completely to the needs of the Soviet Union. Tito on the other hand placed Yugoslav needs first (at least those needs expressed by the Yugoslav Communist Party). Having survived the Germans and defeated the Chetniks, the Yugoslav Communists had no intention of subordinating themselves to the Russians. Tito saw himself as Stalin’s equal: he headed a self-confident party that had won a war, and he expected to be treated as a partner and not a puppet.

Stalin tried and failed to recapture the Yugoslav Party through an anti-Tito purge: thereafter Tito took Yugoslavia on its own course. To silence internal critics, Tito pursued orthodox Stalinist policies for several years: aggressive collectivization of farms, heavy industry and a command economy, tightened control over Party members. However, by 1952 imaginative and unprecedented experiments replaced these doctrinaire policies.

Communist ideology said that the state would some day wither away. In 1952 Tito predicted that the Communist Party of Yugoslavia would itself “wither away” and took a first step by changing the name of the party to the League of Communists, barring party secretaries from political appointments, and reducing control from the top. Related measures followed in the economy. The central planned economy was replaced by “workers’ management councils” that gave groups of employees the authority to make economic decisions for their own enterprises. Each factory or farm set its own production targets and decided how to invest for future growth: wages were tied to factory profits and some unprofitable enterprises were allowed to fail.

Limits remained on political expression: Tito’s wartime associate Milovan Djilas was expelled from the party in 1954 and jailed for going too far in his book The New Class, his critique of Communism. Nevertheless, the Yugoslav “road to socialism” was nothing like that proposed by the Soviet Union.

Yugoslav development was assisted by Western aid from the United States and the World Bank. In 1954 Yugoslavia signed a Balkan Pact for mutual self-defense with Greece and Turkey (both by then members of NATO).

Yet Yugoslavia avoided sliding into the Western camp. At first, Tito kept his independence by maintaining ties with both the West and Khrushchev’s de-Stalinized Russia. Beginning in the middle 1950s Tito used his so-called “Policy of Nonalignment” to find support outside either Cold War camp. Visiting nations from Egypt to Indonesia, Tito assembled a “third force” made up of neutral states that shared fears of Cold War threats to peace and Super-Power domination. The idea of collective small state influence attracted important supporters such as Nasser of Egypt and Nehru of India, and 23 countries attended the First Conference of Nonaligned Nations in Belgrade in 1961. The expansion of trade among the nonaligned states added economic support to political mutual aid.

The result was a Yugoslav state that had a Communist regime but was not a Soviet satellite; a socialist economy but not a command economy; and a distinctive but influential foreign policy of neutrality, in which the Cold War itself rather than either Super-Power was defined as the enemy.


Romania offers a contrasting example of a “national Communism” that resisted Russian influence. The Soviet Union was firmly in control of the country at the end of the war. By the end of 1947 the Communist Party had eliminated its rivals, including the King (sent into exile). At the same time, Romania retained its traditional mistrust of foreign influences and of Russian power in particular.

The first steps in Romania’s move away from Soviet domination ironically derived from the Tito-Stalin split of 1948. Party leader Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej used the crisis to purge all potential opponents out of the renamed “Romanian Workers Party.” Even as Gheorgiu-Dej joined Russian attacks on the Yugoslav “national road to socialism,” he was positioning Romania to take its own road while Russia was distracted by Tito.

Where Tito defined himself by being more flexible than the Soviets, Gheorgiu-Dej took the opposite tack. During the 1950s Romanian national identity was submerged under a cult of things Russian. The leading figures of Romanian literature, history and culture were censored and suppressed, and Russian language and literature studies flourished under state sponsorship. Romanian history books were rewritten to emphasize Slavic influences and Romanian scientists credited Russians with extravagant claims. Russian became a required course in all schools in 1948, and in 1953 a spelling reform removed elements from the language that were too clearly Roman or Latin in origin.

The death of Stalin introduced strains in the Russian-Romanian relationship. Gheorgiu-Dej rejected Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization policies, in part to prevent Khrushchev from installing his own allies in positions of power in Romania. At a time when Russian leaders were being required to choose between party and government posts, Gheorgiu-Dej designated himself as prime minister as well as party first secretary. As early as 1955, Romanian Communists were speaking of a separate Romanian road to socialism, code words for reduced Soviet Russian influence. At the same time, Gheorgiu-Dej supported Russian intervention in Hungary and Poland in 1956, and his superficial loyalty led to the departure of the last Russian troops in 1958.

No sooner had the Red Army left the country than Romania approached the West for new economic supports. Krushchev’s reorganization of Comecon in 1955 had already created friction: under that plan, each country would devote its economy to what it did best, and Romania was identified as a source of cereal grains. Romanian leaders rejected becoming an agricultural breadbasket whose output would feed workers in industrializing Communist states like Czechoslovakia and Poland. Romania preferred to pursue economic self-sufficiency. In 1956 the last joint Russian-Romanian enterprise closed, and by 1957 other socialist states were complaining about Romanian protectionism.

Western loans and contracts helped neutralize Russian influence. The Western share of goods entering Romania doubled, from 21 percent in 1958 to 40 percent in 1965; Russia’s share fell from 53 percent to 38 percent in the same period. Russian cultural centers closed, and streets and institutions named for Russian heroes were renamed. The Soviet-Chinese split of 1960 created another opportunity to widen the gulf between Moscow and Bucharest. By criticizing Khrushchev’s interpretation of the dispute, Gheorgiu-Dej achieved three things. Abroad, he attracted support from Russia’s rivals, both the West and Communist China. At home, he could portray himself as the advocate of a Romanian national Communism that kept the Russians at arms length. Finally, his popularity reduced the scope for objections from his allies both at home and abroad, while he retained a Stalinist grip over the country’s society and economy.

Gheorgiu-Dej died in 1965 and was succeeded by his protege Nicola Ceausescu, who continued his policies. In 1971 Ceausescu visited China, where he was deeply impressed by Mao Tse-tung’s personal prominence in national life and his harsh treatment of dissidents. Back in Romania, Ceausescu soon attacked potential sources of opposition. An autonomous region for the Hungarian minority in Transylvania was abolished in 1968. In 1974 Ceausescu assumed the office of President as well as party chief. Rivals in the party were replaced, often with members of Ceausescu’s family. This “dynastic socialism” included government appointments for his wife Elena, his son, his three brothers and his brother-in-law. Ceausescu also fostered a “cult of personality” around himself. His birthday became a national holiday and pilgrims visited his boyhood home. He was credited with mastery of all fields of learning, from philosophy to physics.

Despite economic problems and human rights abuses, Ceausescu remained the darling of the West because of his defiance of Moscow. In 1967, Romania broke ranks with the Warsaw Pact and recognized West Germany, and refused to sever relations with Israel after the Six-Day War. In 1968 Ceausescu praised Aleksandr Dubcek’s reformed Czechoslovakia, and refused to join the Russian-led invasion that ended the Prague Spring. State visits by Charles de Gaulle and Richard Nixon signalled Western appreciation.

Important economic aid soon followed. Romania joined the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1971, and the International Monetary Fund in 1972. The United States granted “most favored nation” trade rights in 1972, and the Common Market opened special ties with Romania in 1973. Russia’s share of Romania’s foreign trade fell from 39 percent in 1965 to 16 percent in 1974.

Ceausescu excelled at superficial, symbolic acts of independence.  He criticized the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and Romania was the only East Bloc state to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. However, these acts could not mask growing problems in Romanian society. In the 1980s, the West began to criticize the regime’s human rights abuses and the economy began to collapse, a trend that culminated in the 1989 Revolution examined in Lecture 24.

In the 1970s, however, Romania’s future options looked bright. The regime exercised significant options outside Russian control and often in opposition to Russian wishes. This achievement is all the more remarkable given the country’s position adjacent to the USSR, a disadvantage not suffered by Yugoslavia. Once more, views of the Balkan states as mere clients in a bi-polar Cold War environment fail to explain observed facts. Traditional Romanian themes, including both authoritarianism in government and resistance to Russian influence, were clearly at work.


The global Cold War brought new factors into play for the Balkan nations but could not make local problems, traditions and rivalries disappear. Just as nationalism and modernization took on specific Balkan attributes determined by local conditions in the nineteenth century, so too was Communism affected by underlying Balkan factors after 1945. Events since 1989 offer further evidence that Communism could not expunge competing traditions in the region. It is possible in retrospect to see revealing signs of continuity in Balkan political life before, during and after the Cold War era. For an understanding of the Balkans, analyses based on local events are both more informative and more interesting than sweeping generalizations about the Cold War.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 27 November 1996; last modified 17 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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