Defining the Balkans

Balkans are a very popular term for what is also known as the Southeastern Europe. The name comes from the Balkan Mountains which are located on the peninsula. But what, exactly, constitutes the Balkans?

First possibility of the definition is purely geographical. In this case, the Balkans peninsula is usually defined by the line drawn from Trieste to Odessa, as shown below.

Under this definition, Croatia, BiH, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Greece would be wholly or predominantly located on the Balkan Peninsula (red line). Yet the technical definition of a peninsula actually precludes this. Peninsula is “an area of land almost completely surrounded by water except for an isthmus connecting it with the mainland”. Under this definition, only Greece and southern Albania would actually be located on the Balkans peninsula (blue line). Using the first definition would actually mean that Balkans are not a peninsula, since the landward side of the triangle is much longer than the seaward sides.

Consequently, the Trieste-Odessa line cannot serve as a base of the peninsula, since it is the longest side of the area. Only Greece, and potentially also Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria, actually have a pronounced peninsular position. Thus the geographical Balkans peninsula would be limited to the area south of the Balkan mountains.

However, the term Balkans is never used in the purely geographical sense. Rather, its nature is geopolitical. In this sense, the Balkan Peninsula is the best used in its original 19th century sense, as a synonym for the Rumelian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Empire had had massive influence on the cultural and ethnic map of the peninsula, and most of the problems which define the Balkans can – directly or indirectly – be traced to the Ottoman rule. Ottoman borders were not stable, however. The Empire first entered Europe in 1356. by conquering Byzantine Galipoli, and from then on it expanded until its defeat at Sisak in 1593. Between 1593. and 1683. the borders mostly stabilized, but with the Great Turkish War, Hungary and Croatia were largely liberated from the Ottoman rule by 1699. These borders then remained stable until 1867. when Serbia successfully seceded from the Empire, which was recognized – along with Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia – in 1878.

Thus the most logical definition of the Balkans peninsula would use political borders of the Ottoman Rumelia as they were in the period from 1699. to 1878. This, then, would include BiH, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, eastern Romania and Moldavia. Listed areas will have been under Ottoman control from 1475./1485. up to 1878., or around 400 years.

The “expanded” Balkans would include also the areas which were under Ottoman control at the time of Empire’s greatest power: Western Romania, Hungary, as well as Croatian Slavonia and Dalmatia. This definition however is less reasonable, as the denoted area was only under Ottoman power between 1540. and 1699., which is to say 150 years.

Everybody wants to not be part of the Balkans: for Slovenes, Balkans start east of Sutla; for Croatis, somewhere in Bosnia, and for Bosniaks, east of Drina. And it is for a good reason. The Byzantine-Ottoman political legacy of the area has left it extremely chaotic and politically problematic. Due to the Ottoman political legacy, area of the Balkans is ethnically mixed and consequently politically unstable.

Balkan is actually Turkish term for the mountain Haemus, which has Croatian name of Comonica. And for centuries, that is all that it was. The term only expanded to the area it currently encompasses after the German biologist Johann August Zeune used it in his book “Gea” from 1809. This was a consequence of his mistaken identification: Zeune believed that the Balkan mountain is actually a mountain range stretching from Adriatic to the Black sea and separating the subcontinent from the mainland Europe.

The term did not immediately become popular, and in fact was almost unknown and unused for decades. German geographer Carl Ritter immediately after the publication of the book points out that only the area southwards of the Balkan mountain actually has the status of the peninsula, and should thus be named Greek peninsula. In fact, majority of geographers – including the famous names such as Hermann Wagner, Theobald Fischer, M. I. Newbigen and Karl Albrecht Penck – rejected the definition and the naming.

The term of Balkans was also, at the time, completely unnecessary in the geopolitical terms. At the time, Ottoman Empire ruled the massive parts of the Southeastern Europe, and the term of European Turkey was an entirely adequate – and accurate – label for the area south of Sava and Danube. This term however lost its function beginning with the Berlin Congress in 1878., and instead the term Balkans was used to denote the areas which matched the maximum extent of Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. This is also confirmed by the cartography: maps of Balkans from before 1878. include Bosnia, but those made afterwards exclude Bosnia and Greece (as well as Serbia and Montenegro). Only maps of Balkans from early 20th century which do include Croatia and Bosnia are those of Yugoslav provincence, which are thus ideological and not geographical in nature.

Revitalization of the name of Balkans was largely the work of Serb geographer Jovan Cvijić (1865. – 1927.) who, in Paris, publishes his work “Balkan peninsula – the human geography”. It is significant that the book was published precisely in Paris in 1918. – France had long supported Greater Serbian aspirations, and it was in Paris that decision was made on formation of Kingdom of Yugoslavia – a wholly unnatural and artificial formation. It was Cvijić who, in support of Serbian expansionism, moved the border of Balkans to Soča and Alps, falsely presenting the Balkans as an ethnically homogenous area.

This Serb idea of Balkans is still used in the West, with the only difference being its renaming into the “South-Eastern Europe”. But this area is, geographically, the central portion of the southern Europe: thus the term can only really be political in nature. And it is, as shown by the term “balkanization” – the “fragmentation of a larger region or state into smaller regions or states, which may be hostile or uncooperative with one another.”.

Croatia is still placed into the “Western Balkans”, despite extreme sociocultural differences from Serbia and its traditional alignment with the Central Europe and Roman civilizational circle, contrary to Serb alignment to the Eastern Europe and Byzantine civilizational circle. The term itself is only useful in describing the attitudes of the European Union towards the area, which continues to force a square peg into a round hole, even though nearly a century of Yugoslav tyranny (1918. – 1990.) did Balkanize both Slovenia and Croatia to a significant extent.

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