Central Europe


European Union




 Albania  Greece  Romania
 Bosnia  Kosovo  Serbia
 Bulgaria  Macedonia  Slovenia
 Croatia  Montenegro  Yugoslavia

The Balkans refers to the countries of the Balkan peninsula whose southern end is Greece, western side is Yugoslavia and eastern side the Black Sea. This area is inhabited by a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups including: 5 types of Slav, Albanians, Greeks, Romanians, Turks and Magyars, Roma (Gypsies) and at least three religions: Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim.

Among the historical events that influence the present are: the division in 291 by Diocletian of the Roman Empire into an eastern and a western half; the Christianisation of the people from east and west; the Crusade against the Bosnians called by the Pope in 1168; the loss by the Serbs of the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo (1389); the conquest of almost all the area by the Ottoman Empire culminating in the 17th century when the Turks reached Vienna (Wien).

Since the weakening and break up of the Ottoman Empire, a process which occupied the 19th century and the first 20 years of the 20th, the Balkans have been a source of instability. The fault lines representing the ancient frontiers between Byzantium and Rome, the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, are still present and pass through Yugoslavia. The linguistic frontiers do not coincide with these frontiers. Thus the Serbs, Bosnians and Croats speak the same language but regard themselves as different nationalities, based mainly on their religion. Muslims may feel they have some common interests but speak different languages: Albanian and Serbo-Croat. There are some Albanians, Greeks, Turks and Romanians (Vlachs) who are found outside their main areas. There are many villages, towns and counties of mixed populations (or were until the Serbs and Croats started ethnic cleansing). Before the Ottoman Empire collapsed there were also communities of Turks, but most of these were expelled on the independence of Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

The Crimean War (1854-56) was partly about Russia's attempts to control the Balkans, out of a belief that Russia had a duty to protect all Orthodox Slavs: Bulgarians and Serbs. The Russo-Turkish war in 1878 saw Russia try to create an independent Bulgaria but led to a settlement at the Congress of Berlin in which Austria-Hungary was awarded Bosnia-Herzegovina as a protectorate, Russia Bessarabia (Moldova), and the other states - Serbia, Montenegro and Romania - were recognized as independent, while Bulgaria had to wait until 1908 for full independence of Turkey (it was closer to Constantinople). The Russian Tsars also wanted to gain control of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and perhaps even dreamed of reversing the Muslim occupation of the Byzantine Empire.

In the early 20th century there were several wars between the successor states of the Ottoman Empire. The Habsburg annexation of Bosnia in 1908 helped create the first world war. The peace of 1913 freed Albania from Turkey, divided Macedonia between Greece and Serbia, enlarged Montenegro, gave northern Thrace (Salonika) and an Aegean sea coast to Bulgaria and gave the Dobrudja from Bulgaria to Romania. But this settlement was disputed by many of the peoples concerned and did not last.

The first world war was sparked off by a dispute between the Serbs and the Austrians over Bosnia, and the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo by a nationalist who wanted Serbia to expand into Bosnia. The causes of all the wars were disputes about the borders of Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Serbia.

At the end of the first world war the frontiers changed again. Yugoslavia was created with the hope of ending the disputes about frontiers within it. Hungary was reduced to a rump, losing the Magyars of Transylvania, northern Serbia and Slovakia. Bulgaria was also reduced, with its Aegean sea coast going to Greece. This left Hungary and Bulgaria wishing for revenge and made them potential allies of Germany, the main loser of the war. Together they made up the Revisionist states - those who didn't accept the Versaille treaties.
Yugoslavia itself was full of disputes which reemerged during the second world war and again in 1991.

At the end of the second world war the allies, America, Britain and the Soviet Union, agreed that Greece should be under the influence of Britain (and the US), whereas the others should be under the influence of the Soviet Union (Potsdam and Yalta Conferences).
The Balkan disputes were suppressed during the period of Communist domination (1945-1990). Greece joined NATO. Now that Communism has collapsed the disputes have revived. Some showed themselves within the borders of Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state. Josip Broz (Tito) tried to make Yugoslavia into a federation and give each community its own subordinate government. But the frontiers he drew favored the Croats. No doubt he hoped that his secular (non-religious) government would lessen the force of the nationalisms, which were based on religion rather than language. His Serbian successors tried to change the frontiers, especially by abolishing the autonomy of the Albanian speaking province, Kosovo and expanding into Bosnia and Croatia. Tito had intended to create a Balkan Federation out of Yugoslavia and the other Communist countries of the area. Stalin disagreed as he would not have been able to control it and may have wished to create his own federation with Bulgaria as the controlling nation. It must be doubted that either project could have worked as the nationalities are so hostile to each other.

Two other disputes are potential: the identity of the Macedonians has been disputed as their language is transitional between Bulgarian and Serb. In Bulgaria there is a Turkish minority, even though many fled as refugees in 1989 after a long period of discrimination by the Slav majority. There are also Turkish, Bulgarian and Macedonian minorities in Greece (Thrace - a former Bulgarian province 1913-18) who regard themselves as discriminated against. The Albanian minority in Macedonia and the majority in Kosovo may eventually wish to join Albania. A war in Kosovo occurred as the Serbs wished to prevent them, and they tried to practice ethnic cleansing there - expelling the Albanians as refugees. Instead it has been the Serbs who have been expelled.
The treatment of the Hungarian and Gypsy minorities in Romania is also a source of potential instability and already of refugees. The break up of Yugoslavia has activated many of these disputes.

Greece has been allying informally with Serbia against the Macedonians; Germany with Croatia despite the memories of the alliance between the Nazis and the Ustashi. Turkey is trying to form an alliance with Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia. Russians, including unofficial semi-fascist groups, were believed to have been assisting the Serbs. Russian troops, ostensibly under UN control, assisted peace keeping, but there is fear that a nationalist government in Russia might use them for other purposes and revive Pan-Slavism.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have expressed an interest in assisting Muslims (even though they are not very religious).
The Central European states (on this map Hungary and Slovenia) have joined the European Union. Romania and Bulgaria joined 1 January 2007. It was surprising in some respects that Greece was already a member.

The role of the EU in the disputes is ambiguous. The Council of Ministers attempted to mediate in the war between the Serbs and the Croats, without any success. Germany had a policy of recognizing the break up of Yugoslavia, which reminded some Serbs suspiciously of the German occupation during the second world war, though it seems very unlikely that the Germans have any expansionist aims, but possibly some residual Catholic sympathy. The Serbs themselves had expansionist dreams, but even their federation with Montenegro has broken up. They tried to annex territory in Croatia and Bosnia and may also have had ambitions in Macedonia.

The whole area is characterized by extreme nationalism, which to the outsider looks like a disease. Thus the Greeks try to suppress Slav, Romanian and Turkish minorities and claim that Macedonia is a Greek name not to be used by Slavs. The Serbo-Croats hate the component religions and actually massacre the minorities. (One of the characters of the satirical writer Saki - H.H.Munro - said (of Crete) they were "countries that make more history than they could consume locally".)

World statesmen have been searching for a solution to the Balkan problem for 150 years at least. The state of Yugoslavia was thought to be a solution by reducing the number of sovereignties to a manageable number. It didn't work and apparently only worked as long as there was a dictatorship and the Cold War. Can the hysterical nationalism be replaced by a respect for other human beings? The Ottomans delegated rule to the leaders of each religious or ethnic community, under an otherwise rather brutal regime. Although Greece is a member of the EU, some of its Balkan nationalist behavior appears to continue. As in Northern Ireland, unemployment may be the main real cause: prosperous people are less likely to fight each other.

European Union influence increases all the time. Probably, eventually the whole area will be inside the EU which may reduce the nationalist feelings to nostalgia. Talks have begun about eventual admission of Serbia and Croatia (if they hand over the wanted war criminals to the International Criminal Court - Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have already been sent). Even Albania may eventually join.

Croatia has now (2011) had the nod to join and has voted in a referendum to do so in January 2013.

Meanwhile Kosovo remains under UN control, with NATO troops preventing war; Bosnia remains as an EU protectorate with Bosnian-Serb secession constantly threatened.

Interesting reading

Misha Glenny - The Balkans 1804-1999

The Balkans, 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers

Jugoslawien. Der Krieg, der nach Europa kam.

Misha Glenny - the Fall of Yugoslavia

The Fall of Yugoslavia

Fall of Yugoslavia

Stories by Saki
The Complete Short Stories (Penguin Modern Classics)
Tea Obreht - The Tiger's Wife

Die Tigerfrau

La Femme du tigre

Norman Davies - Vanished Kingdoms

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Vanished Kingdoms


World Info


Last revised 5/05/12

Since 5/07/11

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