An Introduction to the Balkans

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Podcast Transcript

Located in southeastern Europe is the Balkan Peninsula. It is home to multiple ethics groups, languages, and religions. 

It has one of the most dynamic and confusing histories of anywhere in Europe, with multiple migrations of people arriving over the centuries. 

Not surprisingly, it has also been the source of many conflicts, some of which are still ongoing today.

Learn more about the Balkans, its history, and what it consists of on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The Balkans are a very confusing part of the world. I was planning on doing individual episodes for many of the countries in the region as well as specific periods in history, so I figured it might be best first to do an episode giving a rough overview of the region. 

The Balkans Peninsula consists of pretty much everything in southeastern Europe. The countries which are part of the Balkans, in part or in full, are Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. 

Some of these, while they reside on the Balkan Peninsula, are usually not considered to be Balkan countries. So for the purpose of this episode, I’m going to ignore Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. The focus of this episode will be the countries formerly part of Yugoslavia and Albania.

The Balkan Peninsula gets its name from the Balkan Mountains, which is a narrow mountain range residing almost entirely in Bulgaria, and a little bit of Serbia. 

Nonetheless, the entire region is more commonly referred to as the Balkans, even though most countries are not technically in the Balkan Range. 

Starting with the iron age, the people in the Balkans were mostly culturally Greek. The people there spoke Greek or Greek-based languages and practiced Greek religion.

For the most part, the Greeks near the sea in major city-states like Athens looked upon these people as not very sophisticated and sort of like rubes. 

This is also where Macedonia was located, which produced Philip II and Alexander the Great, who conquered both Greece and Persia. 

Rome conquered the region and divided it into several provinces. Illyricum, Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Moesia, Pannonia, and Dalmatia. 

Don’t worry if you don’t remember all of these because were are just getting started with Balkan subdivisions. 

The region was an important part of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome in the west. The Byzantines were primarily Greek-speaking and practiced what we could now call Orthodox Christianity. 

When Rome fell in the west, Germanic tribes began moving around Europe, and one of the places where tribes, such as the Goths, migrated was down to the Balkans.

Starting in the 7th and 8th centuries, Slavic people migrated south to the Balkan Peninsula. This Slavic migration was one of the most profound in the European history. The descendants of many of these Slavic migrants still are still there today. 

The word “Yugoslavia” literally means “land of the southern Slavs.” 

As the Slavs moved in, they displaced or absorbed many of the people living there, including Greeks, Illyrians, and Thracians.

As the Byzantine Empire waned in power, the Ottomans filled the vacuum bringing with them Turkic people and Islam. Venice also controled a sizable part of the Adradiac Coast. 

The Ottoman Empire controlled the region for hundreds of years and didn’t lose control until the 19th century.  The 19th century saw the rise of various nationalist uprisings, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Greece, and Bosnia. 

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the creation of the Kingdoms of Serbia, and Bulgaria, and much of the Balkans came under the control of the Austrian Empire. 

After World War I, which began in the Balkans in Sarajevo, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created. 

This lasted until World War II, when the Germans invaded and occupied the region, including Albania. 

After the war, both Albania and Yugoslavia came under the control of communist governments, both ruled by independent-minded dictators who were not afraid to break with the Soviet Union. Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia and Enver Hoxha in Albania. 

In 1991, the communist governments in both countries fell. In Albania, it resulted in open elections. In Yugoslavia, it resulted in the fragmentation of the country and a series of bloody wars which lasted through the 1990s. 

That is a very rough history of the region, which skips almost everything. The thing I want to stress is that the Balkans have been home to several large empires, and it is the intersection of several ethnic and religious groups. 

There is a reason why the term ‘balkanization’ exists. 

With that, I’d now like to go through each Balkan country and provide a brief outline for each one individually and explain how they differ from all the other countries in the region. 

I’ll start with Slovenia. Slovenia is the westernmost of the countries in the Balkans, both geographically and culturally. It only suffered from a ten-day war after declaring independence in 1991. Only 63 people were killed in the conflict, 19 of which were Slovenian. 

Slovenia borders Austria and Italy, and it is a predominantly Catholic country with the strongest ties to Western Europe. It was the first former Yugoslavian country to join the European Union and NATO. 

The Slovenian language is a Slavic language, but it isn’t considered to be mutually intelligible with Serbian or Croatian. 

Slovenia has the highest standard of living of any Balkan country, and its capital Ljubljana is one of the smallest in Europe. 

Bordering Slovenia is Croatia. 

Croatia, like Slovenia, is a predominantly Catholic and Slovic country. It has a crescent-like shape with an interior lobe, and a coastal lobe. 

The Adriatic coast of Croatia is known as the Dalmatian coast, and it gets its name from the Roman Province. 

The official language of the country is Croatian, but more on that in a bit, because it’s a bit confusing. 

Croatia has the second highest standard of living of any Balkan country and was the second to join the EU in 2013. 

The Croatian War of Independence lasted from 1991 to 1995 and resulted in the deaths of over 15,000 Croats. 

Just southeast of Croatia along the Adriatic coast is Montenegro. 

Montenegro is the smallest of the countries which were part of Yugoslavia. Unlike other Balkan countries, Montenegro had a more circuitous route to independence. 

In 1992 they were part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was the short lived successor state to the The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which then changed its name in 2003 to just Serbia and Montenegro. In 2006, Montenegro voted in a referendum to secede from Serbia to become an independent country. 

Unlike Slovenia and Croatia, Montenegro is primarily an Orthodox country. Also, unlike the previous two countries, the system of writing is mostly in Cyrillic, not Latin characters. 

Montenegro is small enough that you could set up camp in any city and still be able to explore the whole country. That is exactly what I did when I stayed in Herceg Novi, which is located on the northwestern part of the Bay of Kotor. 

Believe it or not, Montenegro is home to the largest vineyard in Europe. 

Montenegro is part of NATO but is not a member of the European Union.

Further down the coast from Montenegro is Albania. 

Albania is a completely different kettle of fish from the rest of the Balkans. 

For starters, the Albanian language isn’t really closely related to any other existing language. It is not Slavic, and Albanians are not a Slovic people. They are their own thing. 

Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania from 1944 to 1985, was a very different type of communist leader. He broke away from the Soviet Sphere of influence and charted an independent communist path. He was, however, still incredibly paranoid, and he created a series of cement bunkers around the country to protect the country in the event of an invasion. 

Albania is a mostly Muslim country, however, it is extremely secular. 

There are ethnic Albanians located in many neighboring countries, although by far, most are in the neighboring country of Kosovo. 

Kosovo had a unique path toward independence. Unlike Montenegro, which Split from Serbia via a referendum, Kosovo fought a war for independence in 1998 and 1999 and then unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

Kosovo is predominantly ethnic Albanians who speak Albanian, although there are some pockets of ethnic Serbian in some small border villages. 

Kosovo is recognized as an independent state by over 100 countries, however, but it is not a member of the United Nations.  Serbia still recognizes Kosovo as being part of Serbia, and Kosovo’s ascension to the UN is blocked by Russia on Serbia’s behalf. 

Many important Serbian historical and religious sites are located inside Kosovo, which is still a point of contention. One monastery I visited in Kosovo was protected like a military fortress. 

Southeast of Kosovo is North Macedonia. 

As I explained in a previous episode, North Macedonia had a naming dispute with Greece, which culturally claims the name Macedonia, which is one of its provinces. 

Macedonians are basically Bulgarians who just happened to have lived on a parcel of land that became part of Yugoslavia in the early 20th century instead of Bulgaria. The Macedonian and Bulgarian languages are considered to be mutually intelligible. 

North Macedonia, for the most part, was spared the wars which afflicted the rest of the Balkans after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. However, the Kosovo War did affect North Macedonia profoundly. Thousands of Kosovar immigrants entered the country and small ethnically Albanian regions near the Kosovo border appealed for independence. 

North of North Macedonia is the largest of the former Yugoslavian countries, Serbia. 

Serbia, despite not being a huge country, borders eight other countries. Its capital, Belgrade, is the largest city in the Balkans and the only one with a population of over one million people. 

Serbia is a Slovic country with a mostly Orthodox population. Its language is Serbian, which, again, I’m going to get to in a bit. 

Serbia was the antagonist in all the wars for independence after the break up of Yugoslavia. 

Serbia is also the world’s largest exporter of……raspberries

I want to finish the whirlwind tour of the Balkans with the most Balkan of all the Balkan Countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Bosnia is a country that was designed by committee…..literally. 

There are three ethnic groups in the country, Croats, who are mostly Catholic, Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox, and Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim. 

The Bosnian War, which took place between 1992 and 1995, was the bloodiest of all the post-Yugoslavian wars. Almost 60,000 people died on all sides during the conflict. 

The three ethnic groups in Croatia actually have their own elected officials who rotate in the position of President every eight months. 

Serbs and Croats who are Bosnian citizens all have passports for Serbia and Croatia in addition to Bosnia. Only Bosniaks, however, are allowed to play for the Bosnia national team in World Cup competitions. 

The Serbian part of Bosnia is an autonomous area called the Republic of Srpska, and there is a tiny part of Srpska called the Br?ko District, which is a rare political condominium. That is, it is jointly run by two governments. 

In Sarajevo, it is still possible to see evidence of the war. Where mortar shells landed and killed someone, they used red resin to fill in the holes in the pavement so you can still see the shape of the detonation. They are known as Sarajevo Roses.

I finally want to talk about languages. 

Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin are all basically the same language. I was once photographing a floral festival in Montenegro, and I was at lunch with some journalists from all the countries I just mentioned. 

They were all talking at the table with each other in their native languages. I knew they all also spoke English, having spoken to them earlier, so during a pause in their conversation, I asked the group, “What is the name of the language you are speaking?”

Everyone had a different answer. Despite speaking the same language with each other, they couldn’t agree on a name for the very thing that they all had in common. 

That, in a nutshell, sort of summarizes the Balkans. 

The Balkans are a wonderful place to travel to and is by far the cheapest place in Europe to visit. The wars in the region are now a quarter century gone, and no one wants to return to those days. I’m sure that the borders in the region are still not finished, but any future changes will be done peacefully. 

In this episode, I’ve just skimmed the surface of what each of the countries in the region are about, let alone their long history. In future episodes, I’ll be going into more depth about the people, places, and events which made the Balkans what it is today.