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Balkan redirects here. For the Turkmen province, see: Balkan Province

The Balkans is the historic and geographic name used to describe southeastern Europe (see the Definitions and boundaries section below). The region has a combined area of 728,000 km² and a population of around 53 million.

The region takes its name from the Balkan mountains which run through the centre of Bulgaria into eastern Serbia.

Southeastern Europe seen from NASA's Terra Satellite
Southeastern Europe seen from NASA's Terra Satellite


Definitions and boundaries


- The Balkans are sometimes referred to as the Balkan peninsula as they are surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean, Marmara and Black seas from the southwest, south and southeast.

- While it is not a model peninsula as it has no isthmus to connect it to the mainland of Europe, this definition is often used to denote the wider region.

The Balkans

The identity of the Balkans owes as much to its fragmented and often violent common history as to its mountainous geography. The region was perennially on the edge of great empires, its history dominated by wars, rebellions, invasions and clashes between empires, from the times of the Roman Empire to the latter-day Yugoslav wars.

Its fractiousness and tendency to splinter into rival political entities led to the coining of the term Balkanization (or balkanizing). The term Balkan commonly connotes a connection with violence, religious strife, ethnic clannishness and a sense of hinterland. The Balkans, as they are known today, have changed dramatically over the course of history.

Etymology and evolving meaning

The region takes its name from the "Balkan" mountain range in Bulgaria (from a Turkish word meaning "a chain of wooded mountains"). On a larger scale, one long continuous chain of mountains crosses the region in the form of a reversed letter S, from the Carpathians south to the Balkan range proper, before it marches away east into Anatolian Turkey. On the west coast, an offshoot of the Dinaric Alps follows the coast south through Dalmatia and Albania, crosses Greece and continues into the sea in the form of various islands. . The word was based on Turkish balakan 'stone, cliff', which confirms the pure 'technical' meaning of the term. Actually the mountain range that runs across Bulgaria from west to east (Stara Planina) is still commonly known as the Balkan Mountains.

As time passed the term gradually obtained political connotations far from its initial geographic meaning, arising from political changes from the late 1800s to the creation of post-WW1 Yugoslavia (initially the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians). Zeune's goal was to have a geographical parallel term to the Italic and Iberian Peninsula, and seemingly nothing more. The gradually acquired political connotations are newer, and - to a large extent - due to oscillating political circumstances. After the split of Yugoslavia beginning with June 1991, the term 'Balkans' got again a negative meaning, even if this is casual again. For example, Romania is also labelled a 'Balkanic country' even if this is not compliant with either its initial meaning or later evolutions of the term. Over the last decade, in the wake of the former Yugoslav split, Croatians and especially Slovenians have rejected their former label as 'Balkan nations'. This is in part due to the pejorative connotation of the term 'Balkans' in the 1990s, and continuation of this meaning until now. Today the term Southeast Europe is preferred or, in the case of Slovenia and sometimes Croatia, Central Europe.

Even if incorrect, both historically and politically, it is probable that "Balkans" will continue to have a wider, and pejorative, meaning. Quite often this is rather a cliché covering ignorance or ill intentions.

Southeastern Europe

Due to the aforementioned connotations of the term "Balkan", many people prefer the term Southeastern Europe instead. The use of this term is slowly growing; a European Union initiative of 1999 is called the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and the online newspaper Balkan Times renamed itself Southeast European Times in 2003.

The use of this term to mean the Balkan peninsula (and only that) technically ignores the geographical presence of northern Romania and Ukraine, which are also located in the southeastern part of the European continent.

Ambiguities and controversies

The northern border of the Balkan peninsula is usually considered be the line formed by the Danube, Sava and Kupa rivers and a segment connecting the spring of the Kupa with the Kvarner Bay.

Some other definitions of the northern border of the Balkans has been proposed:

Balkan peninsula (as defined by the Danube-Sava-Kupa line)
Balkan peninsula (as defined by the Danube-Sava-Kupa line)

The most commonly used Danube-Sava-Kupa northern boundary is arbitrarily set as to the physiographical characteristics, however it can be easily recognized on the map. It has a historical and cultural substantiation. The region so defined (together with Romania and excluding Montenegro, Dalmatia, and the Ionian Islands) constituted most of the European territory of the Ottoman Empire from the late 15th to the 19th century. The Kupa forms a natural boundary between south-eastern Slovenia and Croatia and has been a political frontier since the 12th century, separating Carniola (belonging to Austria) from Croatia (belonging to Hungary).

The Danube-Sava-Krka-Postojnska Vrata-Vipava-Isonzo line ignores some historical and cultural characteristics, but can be seen as a rational delimitation of the Balkan peninsula from a geographical point of view. It assigns all the Karstic and Dinaric area to the Balkan region.

The Sava bisects Croatia and Serbia and the Danube, which is the second largest European river (after Volga), forms a natural boundary between both Bulgaria and Serbia and Romania. North of that line lies the Pannonian plain and (in the case of Romania) the Carpathian mountains.

Although Romania (with the exception of Dobrudja) is not geographically part of the Balkans, it is conventionally included as a successor state to the old Ottoman Empire.

According to the most commonly used border, Slovenia lies to the north of the Balkans and is considered a part of Central Europe. Historically and culturally, it is also more related to Central Europe, although the Slovenian culture also incorporates some elements of culture of Balkanic peoples.

However, as already stated, the northern boundary of the Balkan peninsula can also be drawn otherwise, in which case at least a part of Slovenia and a small part of Italy (Province of Trieste) may be included in the Balkans.

Slovenia is also sometimes regarded as a Balkan country due to its association with the former Yugoslavia. When the Balkans are described as a twentieth-century geopolitical region, the whole Yugoslavia is included (so, Slovenia, Istria, islands of Dalmatia, northern Croatia and Vojvodina too).

The aforementioned historical justification for the Sava-Kupa northern boundary would preclude including a big part of Croatia (whose territories were by and large part of the Habsburg Monarchy and Venetian Republic during the Ottoman conquest). Other factors such as prior history and culture also bind Croatia to Central Europe and the Mediterranean region more than they bind it to the Balkans. Nevertheless, its peculiar geographic shape inherently associates it with the region Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of, as well as the recent history with Yugoslavia etc.

Current common definition

Political map in 2004
Political map in 2004

In most of the English-speaking, western world, the countries commonly included in the Balkan region are:

Romania, Croatia and Slovenia are sometimes included in the list as well.

Many regions in the countries listed as Balkan states can be in many respects rather distinct from the remainder of the region, so countries that are borderline cases (often far away from the Balkan mountain itself) usually prefer not to be called Balkan countries. Prime examples of this are Romania, Slovenia and Croatia, sometimes also Greece.

Related countries

Other countries not included in the Balkan region that are close to it and/or play or have played an important role in the region's geopolitics, culture and history:

Nature and natural resources

Most of the area is covered by mountain ranges running from south-west to north-east. The main ranges are the Dinaric Alps in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, the Šar massif which spreads from Albania to Republic of Macedonia and the Pindus range, spanning from southern Albania into central Greece. In Bulgaria there are ranges running from east to west: the Balkan mountains and the Rhodope mountains at the border with Greece. The highest mountain of the region is Musala in Bulgaria at 2925 m, with Mount Olympus in Greece being second at 2919 m and Vihren in Bulgaria being the third at 2914. It is also worth mentioning Stefani in Greece at 2,912 which is known as the ancient throne of Zeus in the Olympus range.

On the coasts the climate is Mediterranean, in the inland it is moderate continental. In the northern part of the peninsula and on the mountains, winters are frosty and snowy, while summers are hot and dry. In the southern part winters are milder.

During the centuries many woods have been cut down and replaced with bush and brush. In the southern part and on the coast there is evergreen vegetation. In the inland there are woods typical of Central Europe (oak and beech, and in the mountains, spruce, fir and pine). The tree-line in the mountains lies at the height of 1800-2300 m.

The soils are generally poor, except on the plains where areas with natural grass, fertile soils and warm summers provide an opportunity for tillage. Elsewhere, land cultivation is mostly unsuccessful because of the mountains, hot summers and poor soils, although certain cultures such as olives and grapes flourish.

Resources of energy are scarce. There are some deposits of coal, especially in Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia. Lignite deposits are widespread in Greece. Petroleum, is present in Greece, Serbia, Albania and Croatia. Natural gas deposits are scarce. Hydropower stations are largely used in energetics.

Metal ores are more usual than other raw materials. Iron ore is rare but in some countries there is a considerable amount of copper, zinc, tin, chromite, manganese, magnesite and bauxite. Some metals are exported.

History and geopolitical significance

Main article: History of the Balkans

The Balkan region was the first area of Europe to experience the arrival of farming cultures in the Neolithic era. The practices of growing grain and raising livestock arrived in the Balkans from the Fertile Crescent by way of Anatolia, and spread west and north into Pannonia and Central Europe.

In pre-classical and classical antiquity, this region was home to Greeks, Illyrians, Paeonians, Thracians, and other ancient groups. Later the Roman Empire conquered most of the region and spread Roman culture and the Latin language but significant parts still remained under classical Greek influence. During the Middle Ages, the Balkans became the stage for a series of wars between the Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian Empires.

By the end of the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire became the controlling force in the region, although it was centered around Anatolia. In the past 550 years, because of the frequent Ottoman wars in Europe fought in and around the Balkans, and the comparative Ottoman isolation from the mainstream of economic advance (reflecting the shift of Europe's commercial and political centre of gravity towards the Atlantic), the Balkans has been the least developed part of Europe.

The Balkan nations began to regain their independence in the 19th century(Greece), and in 1912-1913 a Balkan League reduced Turkey's territory to its present extent in the Balkan Wars. The First World War was sparked in 1914 by the assassination in Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina) of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and communism played a very important role in the Balkans. During the Cold War, most of the countries in the Balkans were ruled by Soviet-supported communist governments.

However, despite being under communist governments, Yugoslavia (1948) and Albania (1961) fell out with the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia, led by marshal Josip Broz Tito (18921980), first propped up then rejected the idea of merging with Bulgaria, and instead sought closer relations with the West, later even joining many third world countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. Albania on the other hand gravitated toward Communist China, later adopting an isolationist position.

The only non-communist countries were Greece and Turkey, which were (and still are) part of NATO.

In the 1990s, the region was gravely affected by armed conflict in the former Yugoslav republics, resulting in intervention by NATO forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Republic of Macedonia. The status of Kosovo and ethnic Albanians in general is still mostly unresolved.

Balkan countries control the direct land routes between Western Europe and South West Asia (Asia Minor and the Middle East). Since 2000, all Balkan countries are friendly towards the EU and the USA.

Greece has been a member of the European Union since 1981; Slovenia and Cyprus since 2004. Bulgaria and Romania are set to become members in 2007. Croatia is also expected to become part of these organizations, however due to lack of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in a manhunt for fugitive general Ante Gotovina, in March 2005 its entrance has been postponed. Turkey initially applied in 1963 and as of 2004 accesion negotiations have not yet begun, although some customs agreements have been signed. As of 2004 Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia are also members of NATO.

All other countries have expressed a desire to join the EU but at some date in the future.

Population composition by nationality and religion

The region's principal nationalities include Greeks (11.5 million, with about 11 millions of them being in Greece), Turks (9.2 million in the European part of Turkey), Serbs (8.5 million), Bulgarians (7 million), Albanians (6 million, with about 3.3 millions of them being in Albania), Croats (4.5 million), Bosniaks (2.4 million), Macedonian Slavs (1.4 million) and Montenegrins (0.265 million). If Romania and Slovenia are included, then also Romanians (26 million) and Slovenians (2 million). Practically all Balkan countries have a smaller or larger Roma (Gypsy) minority. Other much smaller stateless minorities include the Gagauz, the Gorani, the Karakachans, the Arvanites and the Aromanians.

The region's principal religions are (Eastern Orthodox and Catholic) Christianity and Islam. A variety of different traditions of each faith are practiced, with each of the Eastern Orthodox countries having its own national church.

Eastern Orthodoxy is the principal religion in the following countries:

  • Bulgaria
  • Greece
  • Romania
  • Serbia and Montenegro
  • Macedonia

Catholicism is the principal religion in the following countries:

  • Croatia
  • Slovenia

Islam is the principal religion in the following countries:

  • Albania
  • Turkey

The populations living in the following countries have a variety of religious and philosophic affiliations:

  • Albania: Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism.
  • Republic of Macedonia: Slavic population is mostly Eastern Orthodox, Albanian population is mostly Muslim.

For more detailed information and a precise ethnic breakdown see articles about particular states:

See also

External links

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