In media coverage of the reemergent ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe, short shrift is usually given the predominantly Orthodox Romanians, Serbs, Bulgarians and Russians. This is due largely to an affinity of reporters and pundits for "Western" culture, meaning Western Europe and often only Northwestern Europe. These cultural blinders preclude recognition of the full range of Western civilization, which includes Byzantine political and religious culture too.
In each of the hot spots in the region, the warring ethnic communities are portrayed as either oppressors or victims. Commonly, the historical depth of this reportage goes back at most to the beginning of the 20th century, ignoring the complex historical causes of ethnic and religious conflicts.
In Romania, ethnic Romanians -- the vast majority Orthodox -- supposedly wear the black hats, while Hungarian-speaking citizens are their victims. The deposed Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, did focus much of his wrath on the Hungarian minority in the Transylvania region of Romania, prohibiting, for example, use of the Hungarian language in village schools and other public venues. The Latin-Rite Catholics, Reformed Protestants and Unitarians who constitute the majority of the ethnic Hungarians in Romania can testify to the religious persecution they endured.
But the Romanian-Hungarian conflict didn't begin with Ceausescu, or even with the incorporation of Transylvania into Romania in 1919. For centuries the Roman Catholic Hapsburg dynasty in Austria held sway in this region. After establishment of the "Dual Monarchy'' in 1848, the Hungarian component of that empire assumed full local control. Its suppression of Romanian language and culture was thorough and ruthless. Forced Magyarization of indigenous Romanians preceded forced Romanianization of indigenous Hungarians by a century.
In Yugoslavia, that crazy-quilt of southern Slavdom, the embattled Serbs must confront a two-front war of propaganda. The leader of the Serbian Republic, Slobodan Milosevic, has emerged as the doctrinaire Communist and rabid nationalist whom Americans love to hate. As either a Serbian Stalin in the making or merely the latest tribal chieftain, he serves as a convenient stereotype of the entire Serbian nation.
Meanwhile, the Croats and Slovenes in the north, having inaugurated democratic reforms and poised themselves to declare their independence from the Yugoslav federation, turn longingly to the West. Their Catholic heritage and affinity for Western culture are too easily contrasted to the Serbs' historic Eastern Orthodoxy and centuries of supposed cultural retardation under the Turkish yoke. Slovenian and Croatian political moderation is often juxtaposed to alleged Serbian expansionism and hegemonism.
This caricature fails to acknowledge the Serbs' memory of their own wretched experience during World War II. When Nazi Germany conquered the recalcitrant Yugoslavs, German overlords propped up an independent Croatian national state. Atrocities committed against Serbs by the fascist Croatian Ustashi -- including the murder of as many as 1 million out of a pre-war population of 8 million Serbs -- rank the Serbian holocaust among the worst genocides in history. Have the Serbs and Croats simply exchanged black and white hats, or is there enough ugliness to go around?
Meanwhile, the Serbian minority in the Kosovo-Methohia region also has been placed unfairly in a bad light. The cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy, this region in recent decades has witnessed an extraordinary demographic shift. A high birthrate among the mostly Moslem Albanians and a mass exodus by Serbs have created an Albanian majority. According to Serbian Orthodox authorities, the Serbs have fled for their lives in the wake of repeated beatings, rapes and destruction of property administered by militant Albanian youths. This side of the story, however, rarely finds its way into the coverage of this exotic corner of Yugoslavia. Instead the American public is fed a steady diet of Albanian laments about injustices real or imagined.
Bulgaria was dominated by Ottoman Turks longer than any other Balkan nation. Naturally, this overwhelmingly Orthodox people retains vivid memories of centuries of Turkish oppression. When the new reformist government of Petar Mladenov granted civil rights to the Turkish minority, Bulgarian nationalists protested this democratic move, seeking to prevent the Turks from reverting to Turkish surnames or using the Turkish language in public. In this religious-ethnic squabble, Bulgarian nationalists come across as vengeful fanatics, which may, in fact, be an apt description. But the historical background of this anti-Turkish sentiment rarely gets a nod, much less equal time, from the American media.
Finally, the volatile Ukraine has received considerable attention of late, virtually all of it skewed in favor of the Ukrainian nationalists, particularly the renascent Ukrainian Catholic Church in the western part of this Soviet republic. Ironically, the 3 million to 5 million Ukrainian Catholics ("Uniates") constitute only a small fraction of the Ukraine's 50 million people, most of whom are Eastern Orthodox. But even the most diligent news junkie in America would probably have no idea of these relative numbers.
Coverage of this conflict reaches back only to 1946, when Stalin liquidated the Uniate community and forcibly integrated it into the Russian Orthodox Church. But the animosity between Uniates and the Orthodox majority in the Ukraine actually dates back centuries to the Union of Brest in 1596. At that council, which met under Polish suzerainty, most of the Orthodox bishops in the Western Ukraine, but only a minority of the faithful, were arguably "enticed" into union with Rome by offers of political privileges and cultural benefits in the Catholic Polish state. Dissenters faithful to Orthodoxy were forcibly suppressed by Polish authorities.
Worse, the shameless shilling for Ukrainian nationalism in the press is often accompanied by an unconscionable bashing of all things Russian, including the Russian Orthodox Church. Not only has Russian nationalism become automatically associated with antisemitism but the Russians are also generally depicted as somehow sinister and congenitally imperialistic, while the Poles and Lithuanians -- who ran roughshod over Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries -- are supposed to be Moscow's perennial victims. Of course, in the popular mythology Russia represents the "backward" Orthodox East and Poland the "enlightened" Catholic West.
Certainly none of the foregoing should be construed as a justification for the more recent undemocratic villainy by some of these Orthodox peoples against their neighbors. But accuracy and fairness in reporting require a better grounding in history than the American media elites have heretofore demonstrated.
The writer, a senior research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a priest in the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America.