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Thinking inside the box: the Balkans as construction

“I can’t stand it anymore”, I hear a friend complain, “This constant need to label us as the Balkans , whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

And she is right to grumble, because somehow everyone is talking about it and at the same time nobody: The Balkans. The term brings back memories of the Balkan Wars and not often it is seen as synonym to the least developed, most uncivilized region of Europe. The term “Balkanization” became a political key word describing the fragmentation of bigger political compleyes and hunts political scientiests and Europeanists with fear. The historian Maria Todorova claimed in her famous piece “Imagining the Balkans” the term “Balkanization” as one of the worst (political) swear words of the 20th century.  

The Balkan: What is it and if yes, how many? 

So, the question appears: where is it, this Balkan, and what?

Normally, it is best to start any debate with facts, but this is just where the challenges begin, because facts in regards to the geographic position of the Balkans are not quite clear. The region is named after the Balkan mountains and can be found in South East Europe, hence that little tip of Europe which is bordered by the Adriatic Sea in the West. It reaches over countries like Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria, Romania is part of it to some extend, but Moldavia and Ukraine are “only” Eastern Europe. Towards the South, the Balkan peninsula stretches over Greece towards the Eastern tip of Turkey. Towards the North, Serbia and Croatia somewhat belong to it, Slovenia depending on perspective, but Hungary is definitely out.  That is what the atlas reveals.

The search for the Balkans is beyond confusing, because the geographic facts are not clear. The region has – even more so than the rest of Europe – lived through a tumultous history in which borders have constantly changed and in which different great powers divided the region among themselves.

This is where historian Todorova enters the stage. She claims that it would be impossible to understand the Balkans as a closed region on geographic terms. Instead the term has been constructed by Western actors, it is an invention. It was constructed, Todorova says and finds many supporters, because of the need to categorise a region – condemned as Europe’s troublemaker – which does not fit into exisiting regions (Southern Europe, Central Eastern Europe etc.), because of its exceptional history. We are speaking about a region which was partly under Austrian-Hungarian rule, but partly belonged to the Osman empire which leads to a strong Muslim culture in different countries. A region which was communist, however never locked away from the rest of Europe behind an Iron Curtain. A region which – over and over – fascinated and bewildered with its differences and a an as almost oriental stylized wildness. Horror stories and legends are created around this region.

Looking at it in geographic terms, Greece would be the country most obviously to be considered the heart of the Balkans. Talking about regions most Europeans would however intuitively associate the country with Southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal. The European financial and economic crises hit those countries the most, reinforcing their common Southern European belonging.

The Balkans as a construct

Obviously, it is difficult – if not impossible – to describe the Balkans geographically, yet it continues to live as a descriptive category. In place of geographic facts jump history and politics. It is those two factors who determine the Balkans of today. Especially the Yugoslav Wars did their bit to describe what countries belong to the Balkans today: Bosnia&Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia – the countries who were once united in Yugoslavia. But most Slovenes would disagree: their collective identity is clearly shaped by a sense of Central European belonging. This feeling was supported by their early EU accession in 2004.  In Croatia one can find many people as well who object a Balkan-belonging and instead consider themselves to be Mediterrenean. Croatia became a member of the EU in 2007 and here, the EU membership was a welcome opportunity to  sheer off from their Ex-Yugoslav partners and the unfortunate Balkan stigma.

Left in the game are the 5 former Yugoslav states who are not yet part of the EU – and Albania. Albania was never part of the EU, but was from 1944 to 1990 an extremely isolated socialist dictatorship. If the Balkans are being discussed to, post-Yugoslav countries and Albania are often thrown in one big pot, but the historic heritage of both systems is very different. And even the ex-Yugoslav countries can barely be compared, because they have their own very individual experiences. There is for example Bosnia&Herzegovina, a failed state which is extremly split among ethnical lines. The Kosovo proudly celebrated their 10th anniversary of independence in 2018, but many countries around their world refuse to recognize the state and Kosovo often enough sees itself under the pressure of neighbour Serbia. Macedonia is the only ex-Yugoslav republic which escaped the Wars in the 90s and was on a good path into the EU, before the government turned on an authoritarian nationalist way in the early 00s.

Is there a way out of the box? 

Against all the odds and the prevailing stigma, the “Balkans” are firmly established as a term – and as a box. Especially in connection to the planned EU-enlargement the term of the “Western Balkans (6)” has made it into the European vocabulary. You won’t find the Eastern Balkans, but the Western Balkans are a category for all the South Eastern European states waiting for EU accession (exclude Turkey here). Positive headlines in the region are written only sporadically (Macedonia’s foreign affairs were a welcome alternation last year). The Balkan migration route, Ethnic conflicts, corruption and the Balkan wars over and over again, that’s what the region is known for. The collective perception of the region gushes with prejudiced stereotypes.

But there are no wild barbarians living in these countries, they are people like in the rest of Europe, only with different fundamental historical and current prerequisites. This should not be romanticized: the region suffers from undemocratic structures, corruption, nepotism and the structural discrimination of marginalized groups like the LGBT community or Roma. Growing attempts for reconciliation and transborder exchange and cooperation cannot yet fully prevent ethnic conflict and prejudice. Media are known to – purposively – spread misinformation and politics are emotionalized on all levels.

But with all these political, economic and social challenges of the South Eastern European countries nobody does a favour if they are continuously put in the same box of the Balkan problem child. Obviously, some categorization is necessary to some extend in a political context, but the extremely negatively attributed term “Balkans” could be contra-productive on the way of these countries into the EU. It It denies the region to present itself in a positive light. The description “Balkans” always makes it easy to associate with it – and if subconsciously – something different and alien. Speaking – and if only from time to time – about South Eastern Europe would show better that the region is no strange world, but an equal part of Europe. The countries of the Western Balkans are stuck in deep boxes – but maybe the countries of South Eastern Europe can proof with ambitious reform programmes that they are really interested in a deep integration into the rest of Europe?

In different contexts it is important to emphasize regional cooperation between the Western Balkan states, but at the same time (Western) Europeans should not forget that the Balkans are not a homogenous mishmash of troublemakers. Just like EU-membership should not be understood as a a salvation from the Balkan curse, country specifics and a belief in the potential of the region must be granted to every single state. With the continuation of the Balkan stigmatisation stereotypes are being artifically amplified and it is made impossible for the region to free themselves from their difficult heritage.

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