Balkan, Western Balkans, Balkanisation, South-East Europe: From etymology to history, how to define this challenging region?

Article written by Grégoire Soria, in English.

Đurđevića Tara, Montenegro – Photo by Mika Korhonen on Unsplash

At the beginning of the year, an animated debate occurred among the members of the Friends of the Balkans’ society. Some (including myself) were supporting the idea of renaming the society the “Friends of the “Western” Balkans”. In our opinions, the aim was to highlight the orientation of the ex-Yugoslav region’s towards European integration. Others were more keen to englobe the whole South-East Europe within the realm of the society. The rationale was to embrace the whole Balkan region, in its broadest definition. When it came to changing the society’s logo, others concerns emerged from the discussions on regarding the Cyrillic spelling of the word “Balkan” (Балкан). Was it more convenient to use the plural, “Balkans”, or the singular? While the Serbo-Croat languages simply refer to the region as “Balkan”, Romanians would call it “Balkani”, Bulgars “Balkanite” (Балканите). 

What you can see from our narrow student’s discussion is the challenge of finding an appropriate definition of the “Balkans”. Given the impossibility of a consensus on this topic, different expressions appeared to identify this region. The broadest definition would focus on its geographical features: a European peninsula, delimitated by three seas (Adriatic Sea to the West, the Black Sea basin to the east, and to the south the Aegean Sea). However, throughout the area’s history, different denominations have reflected different ways of perceiving the region. “Rumelia”, “Balkans”, “South-East Europe” and “Western Europe”- each term tells a history, the outcome of century-old arguments between philologists and “balkanologists” (I just discovered that such a word exists). 

For a long period of time and still today, the Balkans are perceived through colonial glasses. How often have the Balkans been defined in opposition, reduced to clichés which mask the complexity of the region’s profound reality? Gateway of the Orient, it has been reduced to a borderland between Barbaric orientalism and the civilised and then industrialised Christian realm. Such shortcuts were the source of the judgmental “non-European civilization” perspectives that the region suffered from at the times Balkan wars of the early 20th century. And still today, you can observe these perceptions, like when Macron reduced Bosnia to a “time bomb” to justify his decisions against the progress of the region’s integration to the European Union. There are many clichés and negative judgements made about this region: sometimes justified, sometimes not. Image-clichés of dry hills, spread with small bucolic towns in the Mediterranean countryside mingle with darker pictures of poverty, corruption, and dirty socialist-style towers of big post-Yugoslav cities. 

During the 19th century, the use of the word “Balkans” became much more common. With this, also emerged the first attempts at defining it. The ongoing rivalry between the weakening Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian double crown led to the forging of the Balkans boundaries.

Etymology, the first step towards a definition of the Balkans 

The origins of this word date back to the Ottoman times. During the early modern period, this “Ottoman Europe” (Avrupa-i Osmâni in modern Turkish) was defined in opposition to the Christian world. “Rumelia” was thus the Ottoman denomination of the region. The first mentions of the word Balkan appeared in the 17th century. “Balkan” has its roots in the Turkish term for wooded mountain, or rocky mountain, a word also present in Bulgarian. It specifically refers to the Balkan mountain range, reaching from modern day Bulgaria to the eastern land of Serbia. Called today Stara Plannina (Стара планина), these mountains were designated by the Ancient Greeks as Heamos. Thus some Ancient manuscripts named the peninsula “Haemus”, from the Greek “Haemos” (Αίμος), in reference of this mountain range. If “Balkans” has been first as a reference to a specific mountain range, the definition of the word has subsequently evolved. 

Map made by the author

During the 19th century, the use of the word “Balkans” became much more common. With this, also emerged the first attempts at defining it. The ongoing rivalry between the weakening Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian double crown led to the forging of the Balkans boundaries. The term slowly but surely started to refer to this land, a huge space at the crossroads of the Austrian and Ottoman influences, and marked by its ethnic diversity. 

The border between ‘civilization’ and the Orient? 

The Northern boundary of the Balkans deserves specific interest. It is the most debated one, and it sums up in a nutshell the divergent perceptions about the region. In the 19th century, a military border zone was established at the boundary of the Austrian Empire. These territories, today located in the north of Serbia, Croatia and the northern half of Bosnia-Herzegovina, were progressively inhabited by Slavic people fleeing the repression of the Ottoman Empire. 

A line was drawn, a geographical delimitation, along the Sava River. Originating in the Austrian Alps, it finishes its journey in the Danube, in Belgrade. Its floodplains, extending from Slovenia to the main part of Croatia have been thus considered as the northernmost expression of the Balkans. The Danube river also market historically the northerly limit of the Balkans. However, this definition suffered from heated arguments. Is the Sava River really the border of the Balkans region? What about Vojvodina, historically known for its diversity, inhabited by Serbs and Croats, but heavily influenced by Hungarian culture? Some would even push back the border to include Slavonia, territories that encompass most of the Sava basin. Many would integrate all of Croatia and Serbia into the definition of the Balkans. Others, although they are few, would even include Slovenia. 

Fundamentally, these discussion on the northern limit of the Balkans highlights the deep influence shaped by the Austro-Hungarian influence. It is thus not surprising to observe that, despite their common Yugoslav history with the Balkans, the former “northern republics” are now part of the European Union. This explains their higher level of developments, more stable institutions and fewer minority issues. This is a description that, is the eyes of many observers, would not fit to a Balkan country. Here comes again the deep prejudices, the outcome of century-old clichés. I remember now how revealing the Youtube video of the “philosopher” Slavoj Žižek was, in the 2000’s, in describing these opposite worlds, one being the Balkans and the other “Mitteleuropa”. Standing at the river Sava in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, the simplicity of his description is stunning. I recommend watching it, it is very enlightening. 

The 19th century, the definition of a troubled South-Eastern “peninsula” 

Along with the word Balkan, other expressions emerged in the 19th century. Geographically accurate, reflecting the rise of rational science, works like “Balkaninsel”, “Südostereuropäische Habinsel” (South-East Europe peninsula) entrenched the Balkans in Europe, pushing aside its links with the weakening Ottoman Empire. South-East Europe encompasses what is now modern-day Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, as well as all the former Yugoslav countries (Slovenia included), and Greece. This definition includes vast regions of Romania beyond the Danube, its historical border, and includes the Carpathian Mountains, as well as Moldova, which has close cultural ties to Romania. The status of Greece here is of particular interest. Included in South-Eastern Europe, it is traditionally thought of as a Balkan country. However nowadays, given its features as a mature democracy and member of the EU, one might argue with Greeks that their homeland is not part of the Balkans. Again, the denomination Balkans suffers from a bad reputation. 

The emergence of the term Balkan is linked to all the upheavals of the late 19th century. Whereas West Europe was experiencing an exponential industrialisation, following the development of nation-states, similar nation-building projects were emerging in the Balkans. Yet this border region suffered from instability and a undeveloped economy. In the eyes of the almighty British, French and Germans, who were slowly developing their financial interests in the area, the region started to be seen as a synonym of backwardness.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia brought further instability. Again, war returned to the Balkans. Again, clichés on the barbaric nature and unstable feature of the region came up in newspaper headlines. Again, the war of the 1990’s reflected the European challenges of the time.

The Balkan war, the barbaric moment 

When the Balkan War exploded from 1912 to 1913, significant bias aggravated the bad perception of the word “Balkan” in the public opinion of Western industrialised powers. For many historians, it was the rehearsal for the First World War. The Balkans Wars was the consequence of the Ottoman Empire abandoning its last foothold in the European continent. It was also the result of the very modern world challenge: the wish of politicians, the military and the elites to build nation-states in the Balkans. 

However, reports from that period from industrialised-based organisations, especially the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, downgraded the political and state-building reasons of these conflicts. Wars for independence and the right to have a nation- state have been thought of as barbaric slaughter, stemming from the “deeper traits of character, inherited, presumably, from a distant “tribal past” … In fact, many observers were shocked by the cruelty of these wars, at a time where in the Western world, an incredible period of peace had pushed war out of Europe towards colonial worlds. Other words were coined at that time: “Balkanisation” or “balkanisé/balkanised”. We will not focus on them, but they are nevertheless revealing.  

The Balkan region is not a remote barbaric region. It is rather a reflection of the challenges in Europe at a given moment. The Balkan Wars reflected the violence unleashed by the nation-state momentum. This very logic led to bloodshed and conflict the following year, on battlefields of France and Russia. 

The ideology of brotherhood: Yugoslavia, another model for the Balkans 

Used as a synonym of Balkans, the term Südostereuropa-South-East Europe disappeared following the end of World War II. Linked with the Nazi project for a European-scale Empire, the term was generally avoided. South-East Europe became the antithesis of a political project that emerged from the chaos of the 20th century: the Yugoslavian idea.

From 1918, political projects to unify the Slavs of the South in a same state were expressed through the Yugoslav kingdom. From the ruins of the 1940-1945 war, the Communist partisans reunified the different Slav ethnicities. By liberating themselves from the Nazi occupation, they founded the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Over four decades, Yugoslavia proposed a well-respected model, half-way between state-socialism and the Western capitalist system. Stereotypes of the Balkans split away at the time of “Brotherhood and Unity”. 

However, the disintegration of Yugoslavia brought further instability. Again, war returned to the Balkans. Again, clichés on the barbaric nature and unstable feature of the region came up in newspaper headlines. Again, the war of the 1990’s reflected the European challenges of the time. In the former Eastern bloc in transition, the Balkan region tried to manage its democratic transitions from a nationalistic starting point, turning back the Yugoslav ambition, the Balkan version of Communism. The result is well known.

The Western Balkans, a technocratic word for a 21st century European Union perspective 

In the aftermath of the war, the western part of the Balkan peninsula was in a pitiful situation. Eight new states emerged at the end of the 2000’s, each one of them with their own part of the burden left behind after the fall of Yugoslavia. While Croatia and Slovenia didn’t suffer that much, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, divided along ethnic lines, never really recovered from the conflict. The war of the 1990’s aggravated the region’s perception by the rest of the world. As Europe immerged itself into the European Union, some “ex-Yugoslav” countries recovered more quickly than others. Slovakia joined the EU in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria, spared from the war, followed in 2007, in spite of many critics, completing their transition into the capitalist world. Croatia was the latecomer in 2013. The neologism “Western Balkans” was coined in Brussels, to remove the emotional charge of the “ex-Yugoslav” term. This is why sometimes Croatia and even Slovenia are included in the Western Balkans, despite the fact that they are now EU members. It now identifies most of the Western Balkans countries that lagged behind in terms of economics, democracy and state-building. The expression “Western Balkans” also underlined the new geopolitical situation. By narrowing the scope, it puts into perspective the integration into the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance of the surrounding countries. 

This region is particularly relevant because it holds out a mirror to Europe, showing its past ghosts (total wars, dictatorship, minorities slaughters) and current demons. It also highlights the European integration crisis of confidence.

The Western Balkans is thus the very narrow definition of what would nowadays sum up the Balkans in Western public opinion: post-war societies, traumatised by the wound of ethnic conflicts and the fall of the Yugoslav utopia, trying to exorcize their inner demons (blind nationalism, corruption, criminality). Within it, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, to which we could add Albania, an autarkic country that was closed off during the Cold War. Here, a last dispute confronts people who don’t see the Albanese as people from the Balkans, narrowing its definition to a Slavic common background. Yet even this Slavic common point can nurture tensions, as with Macedonian and Bulgarian, or Serbs and Croats, not to mention Bosnian Muslim, the last expression of the Muslim ‘otherness’. 


Two thousand words later, the definition of the Balkans has still not been clarified. It is the very reason of this article- it is also the raison d’être of the Friends of the Balkans society: to expand interest in the Western Balkans and the South- Eastern European region more broadly. Indeed, better understanding the complexity of this European peninsula is of upmost importance. By grasping the challenges of European integration in this part of Europe, this article has tried to show these complexities through the different expressions that are used to define the region: Balkans, Western Balkans, South-East Europe, ex- Yugoslavia… 

This region is particularly relevant because it holds out a mirror to Europe, showing its past ghosts (total wars, dictatorship, minorities slaughters) and current demons. It also highlights the European integration crisis of confidence. The challenges that societies in Bulgaria and Romania are currently facing with regards to judicial independence and media freedom highlights the weakness of the EU as a political and value- based project. The fragility of Greece echoes the unachieved and somewhat unequal economic process that has resulted from the Union project. The “enlargement fatigue” in the Western Balkans questions the strength of European integration as a “way of life”. Furthermore, the recent weeks and the management of the Covid-19 crisis have highlighted again the tensions between Brussels and the Balkans’ capitals. 

For more information: 

  • Macron’s blunder toward Bosnian, « L’ambassadeur de France en Bosnie convoqué après une interview de Macron », L’Obs, November 8 2019. 
  • Funny description by Slavoj Žižek, “Geographical limit between Balkan and Central Europe”: 
  • Maria Todorova, “Introduction. Balkanism and Orientalism: Are They Different Categories?” Imaging the Balkans, Oxford University Press, 1997 

Published by LA REGIONISTO

La Regionisto focuses on regional economic, political or cultural issues. Its aim is to enable everyone to deepen their curiosity for various regions of Europe and beyond, in a classic or fun way. We welcome articles written in any language and from any approach!

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