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:. . The Balkans

It is often said that the Balkans have been a crossroads of cultures and peoples throughout history. Their location in southeastern Europe between the large, powerful countries of Western Europe, the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and Russia has meant that the many peoples of the Balkans have been buffeted by strong outside forces. It has also been said that several of Europe's important "fault lines," or major cultural boundaries, pass through the Balkans. What these statements mean is that the Balkans historically:

  • contained many different "nations," or national groups, whether or not they had their own countries;
  • contained a complex mix of religious groups, such as Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Roman Catholic Christians, and Jews; and
  • was bordered by strong countries that had an enormous amount of control and influence over the region. Examples of these strong outside countries have included the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union, and the Habsburg (Austrian) Empire.

In the first millennium A.D., the Balkans was a part of the Byzantine Empire. This empire, ruled from the Greco-Roman city of Constantinople, was multinational and very proud of its legacy as the chief successor state of the former Roman Empire. As a matter of fact, the Byzantines thought of their state as the "Eastern Roman Empire."

Gradually, the power of the Byzantine Empire shrank, and independent Slavic states emerged in the Balkans to the west of Constantinople. From the 10th through the 15th centuries, there were Bulgarian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian kingdoms. Since these kingdoms were basically sequential, rather than simultaneous, sometimes the same piece of territory belonged at different times to different kingdoms. This overlap has created problems in modern times, when more than one nation asserts its historical rights to the same territory. One may call this problem of Balkan history the principle of "overlapping kingdoms."

The arrival of the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans in the 14th century heralded a period of massive political change. By the end of the 15th century, all of the Balkan peoples (except for the Montenegrins and some Croatians) would lose their political independence and become subjects of the Turkish Sultan. The most famous defeat of a Balkan people at the hands of the Turks came in 1389, when the Serbs and their allies (including Christian Albanians) lost the battle of Kosovo Polje (Field of Blackbirds), near today's Pristina in Kosovo. Constantinople itself fell in an epochal battle in 1453. The Turks renamed it Istanbul and it served as the capital of their Ottoman Empire until its final collapse after World War I. Photo: The former Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, transformed after 1453 into a mosque. Photo by John K. Cox.

Ottoman rule was basically indirect, built upon a system of millets, or religious communities. Local Christian church authorities, as well as Greek merchants, translators, and Romanian nobles, played important administrative roles. The Orthodox churches, especially the Serbian, became the guardian of the language and cultural traditions of the submerged peoples. Because the Ottoman Empire was not formed on a national basis, that is, it was not a Turkish national state, the Sultan allowed his peoples to retain their identities, if not their freedom; indeed, isolation from currents of change sweeping over Western and Central Europe was probably the greatest negative of Ottoman rule. Photo: Medieval castle of a Romanian noble. Photo by John K. Cox.

Non-Muslims (that is, Christians and Jews) were subjected to civil discrimination but were theoretically protected as fellow "peoples of the book," a reference to the common heritage and sharing of holy writings of these three monotheistic religions, all originally from the Middle East. Sometimes the Sultan's European subjects did suffer greatly, though this suffering was usually from his inability to control his unruly nobles, who exploited their peasants and rebelled against central authority. An aspect of Ottoman rule that was not popular then, and which has been held up as an example of the cruelty of Turkish rule since then, is the practice of devshirme, or blood-tax, in which children from Balkan Christian families were taken away from their families and raised as Muslims in Istanbul. Of course, this practice is cruel by the yardstick of any time. But it should be noted that these children were carefully educated and placed in important careers throughout the empire. They were extremely important to the Sultan because they were a loyal group of advisors, officers, and diplomats who were not beholden to any domestic faction in Ottoman politics except him. They formed a kind of palace guard, although they served not just as elite soldiers (janissaries) but also in many other types of government service. Often high-ranking devshirme officials would perform substantial acts of charity for their places of birth, thereby directly benefiting their original communities.

In the 19th century, under the influence of the Romantic movement and German philosophy, scholars and writers from Balkan peoples began exploring their nations' identities. Some scholars collected folk songs; others wrote dictionaries, grammar books, and histories. As this nationalism spread to wider and wider circles of people in Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria, political activity aimed at the creation of national states began. This activity was certainly aided by the fact that the Ottoman Empire was growing weaker and weaker, even as its rulers attempted long-needed reforms.

By World War I, a series of Balkan states had formed: Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria. At the end of World War I, the defeated Ottoman and Habsburg Empires were carved up, making room in the Balkans for a unified Yugoslavia. During the interwar period, these new countries, as well as their neighbors in the rest of Eastern Europe, were unable to meet many of their basic challenges in agriculture, to assure harmonious relations with minorities inside their countries, and to create workable pluralistic political systems. World War II then came along and, at least in Yugoslavia, made future prospects even worse. In addition to fighting against the Italian and German invaders of the country and their local satellite governments, the Yugoslavs also carried out a civil war between guerrilla groups. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, in all parts of the country, leaving a legacy of mistrust and a thirst for revenge that has reemerged in our time. Still, it is important to point out that these are not "ancient" ethnic hatreds, since they came to fruition less than sixty years ago.

After 1945 socialist governments came to power--or were placed in power by the USSR--in almost all of the Balkan states. Greece was an important exception, eventually becoming an important ally of the United States and a member of NATO, as did Turkey. Yugoslavia and Albania soon become maverick socialist states; they did not remain allies or satellites of the USSR. But Bulgaria and Romania, like East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia to the north, became members of the Warsaw Pact, the alliance system that faced off against NATO during the Cold War.

The year 1989 brought changes of government to most of these socialist countries. The Soviet Union itself was promoting the democratization of its East European communist allies, as part of the massively important period of perestroika instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev. That year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the "velvet revolution" in Prague, and in the Balkans, the toppling and then execution of the Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu.

Tragically, events in Yugoslavia moved in a different direction at this time. The Yugoslavs had long enjoyed more freedom and a higher standard of living than most other East Europeans, but the breakdown of central authority in that country after the death of its long-time leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980 was accompanied by tremendous economic problems and, even more ominously, the rise of manipulative nationalist leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. Thus, at a time of great change in Europe, the Yugoslavs found themselves poised at the precipice of disaster. From being first among East Europeans in terms of liberalization and prospects for positive change, they had dropped to last. It was only a short drop further down to the civil wars and wars of succession which began in 1991.



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