The Balkans – It’s Complicated

We spent a couple of weeks last fall in the Balkans and it was very informative considering what little we really knew about this region. To say the Balkans are complicated doesn’t even begin to describe what goes on there. We had a young woman (mid 30’s) who was our tour guide recently. She explained that in her life she has had four passports from four different countries all while living at the same address in Belgrade.

Even the geographic location is complicated, with most local people preferring to call it “Southeast Europe”. The name Balkans was first used in the eighteen hundreds naming the area after a mountain range in todays Bulgaria. Most people define the northern border of the region as the Danube River. The rest of the region is bordered by the Adriatic Sea, the Ionian Sea, the Aegean Sea and Black Sea, making it a misshapen peninsula.

The current states in the Balkans include Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Some of the countries exclude themselves from being called a Balkan State for mostly political reasons. All of this is subject to change of course.

The Iron Gate

Over centuries the region has been conquered or occupied by the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, the Austro–Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union and the cultural and religious divides are even more difficult to understand than the geography. Unfortunately religion has been a serious cause of conflict with Islam being the most serious aspect because of conquest by the Ottoman-Turks and the banning of Christian worship. Add to that numerous conflicts between Roman Catholics, and various sects inside the Eastern Orthodox Church and religion gets complicated too.

Modern History

The modern states of the Balkans began when Yugoslavia was created after World War I from the Austro–Hungarian Empire in Southeast Europe, in a union of the Kingdoms of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1929 it was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

In World War II a unified Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis Powers. What followed were several puppet governments, Soviet control, followed soon after by rise of Tito. He held Yugoslavia together from 1945 until his death in 1980 but also went through a number government changes in goals and philosophies. Tito created the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia following the style of the Soviet Union, but soon broke with Stalin, and communism’s style in Yugoslavia became his own creation.

Within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were a number of semi-autonomous Socialist Republics including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia. Serbia also included two semi-autonomous provinces: Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the south. Yugoslavia fell apart after Tito’s death in the spring of 1980. The central government of Yugoslavia was actually secondary to the individual member republics and hundreds of communist communes around the region. Initially President Tito was replaced by a rotation of regional leaders attempting to keep Yugoslavia together. It failed. Independence movements began and by 1990 the Balkan Wars began.

Croatia and Slovenia were the first to declare independence, together, on 25 June 1991, although fighting continued between Croats and Serbs within Croatia for four more years. Macedonia declared independence in September 1992. They were the only one to do so peacefully and Macedonia still maintains good relations with Serbia and its other neighbors.

Bosnia and Herzegovina independence was attempted in 1992, but they immediately fell into a civil war. Bosnias Muslims and Croatian Catholics fought against Serbian Orthodox Christians who had official and unofficial support from what remained of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia. The Bosnian Serbs took on the name of Republika Srpska after it lost direct help from Yugoslavia when Bosnia and Herzegovina gained UN recognition as an independent country. Peace was eventually created after a NATO bombing and ground campaign, and Republika Srpska joined Bosnia and Herzegovina as a federation. Republika Srpska doesn’t get mentioned much, but is still the second, largest autonomous, governing body in that federation.

Serbia and Montenegro remained united under the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, being renamed “Serbia and Montenegro” but than Montenegro got independence with a referendum in 2006. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Today, Kosovo’s independence is recognized internationally, but is still disputed by Serbia.

The Yugoslavia Legacy

Conflict has become a way of life even today in the region. After rivers change course, countries still fight over where the borders should be. Ethnic minorities in one country still claim citizenship with a neighboring region and the practice of Serbia attempting to exert control over a neighboring geographic area by relocating Serb communities into the territory has left behind tensions. Religion is also a major flash point even today. Macedonia is the only country not disputing any of its borderlines. It recently resolved a conflict with Greece over its name by agreeing to the Republic of North Macedonia instead of the Republic of Macedonia.

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