Pick a Region
:. . The Balkans

For a complete understanding of the term Balkans, one needs to know more than just which countries and languages are located in the region (Peoples). It helps quite a bit, in terms of grasping both current events, recent history, and not-so-recent history, to look at the Balkans in the context of a larger geographical region called Eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe: Unfortunately, there are almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region. One very common, but now outdated, definition of Eastern Europe was the Soviet-dominated communist countries of Europe. This definition created problems for scholars of Albania and Yugoslavia, which had communist governments but were not under the control of the USSR. This definition also creates confusion with regard to the former East Germany, which has now been reunited with West Germany. For 40 years, this splinter of the traditional German lands ended up in Eastern Europe, politically, because it was the Soviets who captured Berlin at the end of World War II. But the German lands more properly belong to the history of Western Europe, or perhaps to their own zone of Europe known as Mitteleuropa (Middle Europe).

Some scholars define Eastern Europe as "the other Europe," meaning that it is the  network of countries and peoples that lie to the east of familiar countries such as France and Germany. This term is a little confusing because it leaves us in doubt about whether or not to include Russia (which is certainly a European country) in this definition. And what about the peoples who were long a part of the Russian empire and now have their own countries such as the Ukrainians, the Belarussians, the Moldovans, the Estonians, the Latvians, and the Lithuanians?

A very simple and reliable approach to defining Eastern Europe is found in the work of the famous English historian Alan Palmer. He called Eastern Europe "the lands between," which means the countries between Germany and Russia. That would mean that today's Eastern Europe would include the following countries: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia (consisting today of Serbia and Montenegro).

Historically these countries share more than just their position between the powerful countries of the Russians and the Germans. They have also had a type of nationalism that is usually different from West European nationalism, being based more on shared ethnicity than political loyalty; a much slower process of economic modernization and industrialization (due in part to their being land-locked and to their usual role as raw material providers to Western Europe); a lower population density; a complex mixture of religious groups which included large numbers of Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims; different patterns of landholding and inheritance; a smaller historical role for cities with their rising commercial classes, professionals, and intellectuals; multinational empires imposed by outside powers that lasted for hundreds of years; and a historically close relationship between church and state.

A final way of conceptualizing Eastern Europe is to think of it as the sum of its two sub-groups: Central Europe and the Balkans. To understand the region in this way, two further definitions are required.

Central Europe: Scholars agree that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are Central European states, since they are located next to each other and share Habsburg heritage and, going back further in time, a legacy of an enormous amount of contact, both positive and negative, with the German-speaking world. Most scholars also consider Slovenia, Slovakia, and Croatia to be part of Central Europe.

The Balkans: The Balkans is a geographical term, which designates the large pensinula in the southeastern part of the European continent, connecting Europe to Asia Minor (Anatolia). Today, the Balkans include these independent countries: Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and Bosnia. Geographically, "European Turkey," a small region around Istanbul, is located in the Balkans. Some scholars also consider Croatia to be part of the Balkans.

The biggest dilemma with viewing Eastern Europe as the sum of Central Europe plus the Balkans is that neither of the sub-groups includes all of the countries in the "lands between" Germany and Russia. These are the countries to the east of Poland, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Since these countries spent much of recent history under the control of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, they are sometimes studied as part of Russian history. Although politically they have often been part of the Russian sphere, culturally they are in many ways closer to Central European countries.

One cannot discuss current events or history in the Balkans without making great use of terms such as nation, ethnic group, state, and nation-state.

Nation: A nation is a group of people who feel a common identity, based on a shared language and history, culture, and sometimes religion, and sense of mission or political purpose.

National group: National group is a synonym for nation. A national group is a minority if it lives in a country that has a dominant majority group (which has over 50%). A group is said to have a plurality in a country when it is below 50% of
the population but is still the biggest single group, for instance, the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

Ethnic group: Ethnic group is sometimes used as a synonym for nation or national group. But strictly speaking, this word refers to a group of people who are actually, if distantly, related, or who perceive themselves to be related. Ethnic distinctions are thus akin to racial distinctions rather than linguistic or cultural ones. Thus, not all members of a nation might be members of the same ethnic group.

State: To historians and scholars of international relations, the word state signifies a sovereign or independent government that administers a set territory. The word country is usually a synonym for state.

Nation-state: The nation-state principle of government is the belief that every nation should have its own state. Today we take the term nation-state for granted, because it is the standard model of territorial government today. People tend to think that the whole world is organized that way. It is not now, nor has the nation-state been the dominant form of territorial government throughout most of human history.

One of the fundamental trends of 19th century European history was the growth of nation-states. Old multinational empires, especially in Central Europe and the Balkans, were gradually being eroded and replaced by independent countries, based on their subject nationalities. Britain, France, and Spain already had well-established countries by 1800, based on dynastic rule and the supremacy of one national group. Germany and Italy became unified, independent countries for the first time in recent history in the 1860's and 1870's. Most of the countries of Eastern Europe were prevented from following this pattern because of the presence of large, multinational empires. But as these empires receded, independent countries such as Serbia, Greece, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and eventually Poland and Hungary appeared. The map of peoples in Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans, still does not correspond to the map of countries in those areas today. This is the source of much of the conflict in the region.

In the 20th century, the nation-state idea spread to other continents besides Europe. It created great problems in some of these places. In Africa, for instance, the countries which exist today were not formed by Africans to reflect natural population patterns or traditional cultural and economic affiliations. Rather they were the result of European imperialism in the continent, whereby the European powers simply "carved up" Africa into administrative units for their own convenience. When these units became independent countries after World War II, they usually consisted of many different national groups with little in common. Hence the process of nation-building in Africa has been very difficult.

Sometimes, nations today are split among two or more countries, as in the case of the Albanians of the Balkans, many of whom live in Albania but who also form significant minorities in the neighboring countries of Macedonia and Serbia. Some nations today have no country at all, such as the Kurds of the Middle East or the Roma of Eastern Europe.

Nationalism: Nationalism is the feeling of identity, which is experienced at the individual level and at the group level; it is also a modern phenomenon, first emerging in Europe in the 18th century. The political aspect of nationalism is mostly associated with the phrase "self-determination of nations," whereby every nation (or people) is said to have the right to have their own country. Nationalism first played a role in England and France: it relies on criteria such as a common history and culture, and often a common language or religion.

Modern democracy: Modern democracy emerged at about the same time as nationalism and focuses on "rule by the people."

Popular sovereignty: Popular sovereignty means rule by the people. Nationalism and modern democracy are forms of popular sovereignty. The reason that nationalism and democracy are not always connected is that they are often based on different ideas of "the people." Some of these different ideas are ethnic nationalism and political nationalism, both of which stress the importance of a common language (although this is not absolutely essential in either case). For instance, Switzerland has four official languages, yet its citizens form a stable and unified political entity. Countries like Belgium and Spain also have significant linguistic splits. Languages are also not enough to link different peoples politically. English, for instance, is shared by people in Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, the U.S. and in most of Canada, but all these people are representatives of different "nations."

Ethnic nationalism: Ethnic nationalism considers the people as a group of physically related persons, a kinship group. "Blood lines" and race are important to ethnic nationalists, who view the nation as an extension of the family, tribe, or clan. The ideology of Nazi Germany is an extreme example of ethnic nationalism. Ethnic nationalism tends to be backward-looking in that it glorifies past epochs of supposed national unity, purity, and greatness. Ethnic nationalists also look askance at minority groups who inhabit the same country; full citizenship is reserved for people who share the ethnic background of the dominant nation.

Political nationalism: Political nationalism considers the nation as simply a political population. Political nationalists share the same ideals, political attitudes, and sense of future mission. This kind of nation has membership criteria that are more flexible than those of ethnic nationalism; it is more pervious and hospitable to immigrants. The nationalism of the United States is an example of political nationalism, since today there are no ethnic or racial criteria for being an American.

The following definitions will help non-specialists understand the important cultural and historical issues addressed in our Web site.  Please read them over now and feel free to refer back to them as you review the site.

Byzantine Empire: The Byzantine Empire was the main successor state to the unified Roman Empire, which broke up in the late 5th century A.D. The Byzantine Empire's capital was the ancient Greco-Roman city of Byzantium, which was also known as Constantinople, after the Emperor Constantine, who greatly increased the empire's power and prestige. The Byzantine Empire survived until 1453, when it was completely overrun by the Ottoman Empire. But the Byzantine Empire had already been losing power and territory for several centuries.

Ottoman Empire: The Ottoman Empire was an important state which, at its peak, ruled much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeastern Europe (the Balkans). The empire was based on the Ottoman Turkish ruling family. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks captured the Byzantine city of Constantinople; they renamed it Istanbul and used it from then on as their capital. The Ottoman Empire was extremely diverse in national and linguistic terms; in addition to Turks, it was inhabited by large numbers of Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Albanians. The Ottoman Empire gradually declined after 1700, and it broke up for good just after World War I, in which it fought on the losing side. Today's Turkey corresponds to the old heartland of the Ottoman Empire.

Habsburg Empire: The Habsburg Empire was a great power in Europe from the late Middle Ages until World War I. It was ruled by the Austrian royal family, the Habsburgs, and its capital city was Vienna. The Habsburg Empire eventually included Hungary, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and important parts of Italy, Poland, and Romania. Although its critics sometimes referred to it as "a prison of nations," the Habsburg Empire offered protection to many small national groups and kept them from being absorbed by other cultures. It also laid the foundations for the industrial development of Central Europe. The Empire broke up as a result of World War I, and its territory provided the basis for the new countries of Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Some Habsburg territory also was transferred to the country of Yugoslavia, which was created at that time.

The Eastern Question: This term refers to the diplomatic struggles surrounding the decline and demise of the Ottoman Empire. As this empire weakened after about 1700, its neighbors wished to extend their influence into former Ottoman territories. Various national groups within the Ottoman Empire, moreover, were struggling to regain their freedom. These "successor states" such as Serbia, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania eventually emerged in the wake of the retreating Ottoman Empire. The most famous example of the Eastern Question was the dispute over the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was occupied by the Habsburg Empire after a war in 1878. The country of Serbia, next to Bosnia, had recently become independent from the Ottoman Empire also, and it also aimed to annex Bosnia. This rivalry led to great tensions between the Habsburg Empire and Serbia, and World War I began after a Serbian nationalist killed the Austrian heir apparent on a visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.

Balkan Wars: Wars occurring between 1912-1913 where the small Balkan states teamed up to seize land from the declining Ottoman Empire and then fought amongst themselves as they divided up the territory.

Perestroika: Perestroika refers to the far-reaching program of reforms that Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, instituted in that country from 1985 until 1991. The word means restructuring in Russian. Gorbachev's aim was to revitalize the economy of the USSR, while improving the efficiency of the Communist Party and meeting some demands for local self-government. One of the most famous aspects of perestroika was "glasnost," or press freedom, which allowed Soviet citizens to air
complaints, criticize their leaders, and ask tough questions of historians and party leaders. Gorbachev also allowed the countries of Eastern Europe to follow their own paths of reform. The forces of creativity and discontent that he released soon snowballed out of his control, however, and the Soviet Union broke apart--largely peacefully--in 1991.



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