Defining the Balkans

Montenegro Landscape

The Balkans, as a region, is not easily defined. Throughout the course of history the countries have expanded and retracted, with contemporary states falling under one empire or another, and every once in awhile managing to gain a few brief years of independence. These days, though, that independence also seems to include a new sense of identity, with many rushing to disassociate themselves with a regional label that often implies backwardness at best and bloodthirstiness at worst.

The Balkan Peninsula is named after the Balkan Mountains, which run from eastern Serbia through Bulgaria to the Black Sea. The Balkan region, however, encompasses many more countries. Geography-wise, the Balkan countries are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. But geographic location isn’t everything: Turkey and Greece are often excluded from Balkan classification due to a lack of shared political and cultural history.

Don’t think about that statement for too long, though, or you’ll realize that both Turkey and Greece substantially influenced the surrounding area. They get excluded because Turkey, under the guise of the Ottoman Empire, was the colonizing power, while the others spent much of their history under subjugation. They get excluded because communism played a major part in shaping the Balkan countries’ identities, and neither Turkey or Greece adopted the system. Or maybe they’re excluded because no one wants to put Greece, so often idolized as the cradle of Western Civilization, into the Balkans, no matter where it falls on a map.

Other countries might try to escape the Balkan label. Romania could plead a difference in language, with its Latin rather than Slavic roots. Slovenia and Croatia could argue that, courtesy of their inclusion in the Austro-Hungarian empire, they’ve always been more central European than Balkan. Serbia would simply state that Kosovo can’t be a Balkan country because it’s not, in fact, a country.

So Where, Exactly, Are the Balkans?

Sorry, guys. No one else is getting off the hook. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia can all be considered “Balkan.” In these ten countries, similar histories have led not just to similar cultures, but have produced similar circumstances and similar problems that each state continues to wrestle with now, and likely will into the near future.

Note that I say similar. No Balkan country is identical, and it would take shelf after shelf of books to explain the unique history of each, and how those histories bend and stretch at the borders. But even when delving into the history of specific states, you’ll always almost find groups that identify more with another country: Albanians in Montenegro, Bosniaks in Serbia’s Sandžak, Serbs in Kosovo, Bulgarians in Macedonia. Some might believe this difference, this discrepancy between a country’s internationally demarcated borders and the ones its peoples observe, is what leads to inevitable bloodshed. Such belief involves far too little thought and far too many assumptions, and is one of many stereotypes that must be broken down when using the Balkan label.

Because even for those who might identify with a minority ethnic group within their own country’s borders, there’s almost always more similarities than differences. Many speak a south Slavic language that can be deciphered across borders, while Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian are all one language that the countries insist on slapping a national label upon. Each, as previously mentioned, spent much of their history either under the control of a Great Power or being used as a pawn in international games. And all are still dealing with the legacy communism wrought, whether as a satellite state for the Soviet Union, a closed-off nation trying to go it alone as Albania did, or as a part of Yugoslavia, caught between East and West.

The legacy of communism, the brutality of war — these are what most believe unites the Balkan states under one label. But look closer and there are plenty of commonalities to celebrate. Friendship is prioritized, family even more so. Coffee is strong and meant to be savored, almost always over a chat with those friends and family. Food is fresh and delicious. The region is gorgeous, from the dramatic seaside views on the Adriatic to the blue-green rivers and wooded hillsides inland. And, perhaps most importantly to any visitor, hospitality overflows in the Balkans, from a stranger offering to walk you to your destination to a rakija pressed into your hand as soon as you enter the door to a hours-long barbecue thrown in your honor.

They’re all similar. They’re all different. But, like it or not, they’re all Balkan.