Defining the Balkan region is a continuous project of contemporary geographers, anthropologists, political entities ranging from the United Nations to local nongovernmental organizations, economists, literary figures, historians, and others both inside and outside the ill-defined region. For example, Hungary is occasionally included in the region, due to the country’s 150 years of Ottoman domination, while contemporary Turkey, but not Ottoman Turkey, is often left out due to its greater affinity with the Muslim countries of the Middle East. The most common countries included in the Balkans are Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, the countries of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia), and the European portion of Turkey.
The peoples of this area speak a large number of different languages from a variety of different language families. Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, Bosnian (a dialect of Serbo-Croatian), Slovenian, and Bulgarian are all Slavic languages and are partially to largely mutually intelligible, while Romanian is a romance language, Turkish is a Turkic language, and Greek and Albanian are the sole remaining languages in their own subbranches of the Indo-European language family. Religiously, as well, the peoples of this region differ widely, including great diversity within some countries. For example, contemporary Albania includes a majority Muslim population but also includes a large Roman Catholic minority (Mother Theresa was Albanian) and a smaller Orthodox community. Similarly, Macedonia (Former Yugoslavian Republic of) and Bosnia and Herzegovina are both largely Orthodox, but also have large Muslim minorities. Croats are predominantly Roman Catholic, while Serbs largely follow the Serbian Orthodox church. Romanians, Montenegrins, Greeks, and Bulgarians are likewise Orthodox, each with their own patriarchate, while Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim. A third area of diversity in the region is the large numbers of ethnic and national minorities; Hungarians, Germans, Italians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Roma, Vlachs, and a small number of Jews can be found in scattered communities in many Balkan countries even to this day.
Historically, all of the contemporary Balkan countries shared domination by the Ottoman Turks, beginning in the 14th century. Nonetheless, this domination was considerably longer in some areas than in others. For example, the Serbs lost their hegemony in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo and the Greeks in 1393, while it took another 64 years for the Ottomans to conquer the last Byzantine emperor in Constantinople (Istanbul), and yet another hundred years to expand beyond Romania. The end of Ottoman rule also came over a long period, with Greece gaining its independence in 1832 after an 11-year nationalist war of independence, while Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and parts of Bulgaria were not independent until the treaty of San Stefano ended the Russo-Turkish War in 1878. The states of Albania, Montenegro, and the remainder of Bulgaria finally gained independence following the Balkan league’s victory over the Ottomans in the first Balkan War, 1912 to 1913, while Macedonia remained divided between Greece and Serbia after their defeat of Bulgaria in the second Balkan War, in August 1913.
As has been the case since at least the end of World War II, the term Balkan is most associated with a political process known as balkanization, referring to nationalist fragmentation, usually through violent confrontation. This connotation has gained strength only in the past decade and a half, since the wars that emerged during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. From the relatively quick war between the Yugoslav federal army and Slovenia (June 25-July 7, 1991) to the extensive battles betweens Bosnians and both Bosnian and Serbian Serbs that lasted for 42 months beginning in April 1992—and brought “ethnic cleansing” into the global vocabulary—these events have done nothing to alleviate the image of the Balkans as a violently nationalist, brutal backwater on the periphery of Europe.
Nonetheless, it is a mistake to characterize this region solely in terms of primordial, or even just 19th-century, nationalisms. Even with regard to these postcommunist wars, a large number of both local and outside experts have argued that they were more about contemporary conflicts than ancient hatreds that had been suppressed by the power of the Yugoslav federation and the communist leadership. As many have noted, the most brutal events and long-lasting of these wars took place in the most ethnically mixed regions, in places and amongst peoples whose very lives made a mockery of the nationalist ideologies being propagated by leaders far from their homes. Rather than primordial ties, these wars were about contemporary power struggles.
In addition, the Balkans are also home to a large number of ethnographically interesting features, many of which have been studied extensively by both indigenous folklorists, beginning in the 19th century, and Western-trained anthropologists, sociologists, and others. One of these features is the complex social organization of many South Slav and Albanian communities. From the zadruga, or joint household in Serbo-Croatian, up to the lineage, clan, and even tribal levels, anthropologists and folklorists have taken great interest in these features that seem so rare in other parts of Europe. Another feature of many Balkan communities, although not unique to this area by any means, is the focus on the patriarchal system of honor and shame. While the indigenous legal system of Albania, the kanun, has codified this system to a greater extent than elsewhere, it is certainly a part of the ethnographic record for many other Balkan communities, particularly Greece and portions of the former Yugoslavia, as well. Other features that have likewise been studied in many Balkan communities are ritual godparenthood, or kumstvo in Serbo-Croatian, the importance of hospitality and reciprocity, and to a lesser degree, the sworn virgins, or honorary men, of Albania, Kosovo/a and Montenegro. In Romania and Bulgaria, more extensively than elsewhere in the Balkans, recent ethnographic efforts have gone largely to studying the transition away from communism, while the record of both Romania and Yugoslavia under their differing communist systems is also quite extensive due largely to the vicissitudes of cold war politics.
- Hammel, E. A. (1968). Alternative social structures and ritual relations in the Balkans. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Hayden, R. M. (1996). Imagined communities and real victims: Self-determination and ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. American Ethnologist, 23, 783-801.
- Todorova, M. (1997). Imagining the Balkans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.