What Is Balkanization?

Russo-Turkish War. The soldiers of the Ottoman Empire at the battle of Eski-Djuma (Bulgaria). In August 1877.
Russo-Turkish War: Soldiers of the Ottoman Empire at the battle of Eski-Djuma (Bulgaria) in August 1877. .

Corbis / Getty Images)

Balkanization is a term used to describe the division or fragmentation of a larger sovereign state or region into smaller, often ethnically similar, regions or states. First coined in the early 19th century, the term comes from the breakup of the Balkan Peninsula, which was ruled almost entirely by the Ottoman Empire, into several smaller states between 1817 and 1912. It came into more common use in the immediate aftermath of World War I, about the many new states that arose from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. While typically caused by differences in ethnicity, culture, and religion, such breaking up may also coincide with other regional political movements such as nationalism, independence, imperialism, and anti-colonialism.

Key Takeaways: What Is Balkanization?

  • Balkanization is the division or fragmentation of larger sovereign countries or regions into smaller, often ethnically similar, countries or regions.
  • Coined in the 19th century, the term comes from the breakup of the Balkan Peninsula, then ruled almost by the Ottoman Empire.
  • Typically a result of differences in ethnicity, balkanization may coincide with other regional political movements such as nationalism, independence, imperialism, and anti-colonialism.
  • Balkanization is often confused with devolution, the voluntary transfer of power from a central government to state, regional, or local authorities.
  • The term balkanization has often been used by imperialistic foreign powers to divert international attention from their own ethnically divisive policies of control.

History and Origins

One of the most powerful and longest-lasting dynasties in world history, the Islamic-run Ottoman Empire ruled large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North Africa for more than 600 years. Throughout history, the Ottoman territories were politically and economically linked with Europe. The Ottomans were known for their achievements in art, science, and medicine. The Ottoman Empire was a mosaic of languages and religions, and its dramatic modernization process influenced not just the Turkish part of the Empire but Muslim societies elsewhere. For centuries the Ottoman-ruled Balkan Peninsula was almost the only region of Europe with a tradition of tolerance toward people of different religions, ethnic origins, and cultures. While Western Europeans generally viewed it as a threat, many historians regard the Ottoman Empire as a source of stability and security within the region. 

The fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire began centuries before the term balkanization was even coined. Following the start of the Russo-Turkish Wars in the 1580s, the Ottoman Empire began to deteriorate rapidly. Fought from 1853 to 1856, the Crimean War further weakened the empire. Though the Congress of Paris recognized the independence of the Ottoman Empire in 1856, it was still losing its influence as a European power.

Map of the Balkans, Circa 1620
Map of the Balkans, Circa 1620.

Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Due to several rebellions in the late 1800s, the Ottoman Empire continued to lose territory. Uprisings by Turkish nationalists along with the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, further reduced the empire's territory and increased instability, and created international negativity toward the empire. The Ottoman Empire officially ended at the end of World War I, when the Treaty of Sevres ceded large parts of the Ottoman territory to France, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Italy, as well as creating large occupation zones within the Ottoman Empire.

When sponsored or encouraged by a third-party sovereign state, breakups such as that of the Ottoman Empire are often negatively called balkanization as an accusation of aggressive political “meddling” or interventionism on the part of the third-party state. The term is also often used by third-party states interested in maintaining the status quo as a condemnation of belligerent or uncontrolled regionalism. Geopolitical scientist and author Michel Foucher has defined balkanization as “the constant involvement of foreign powers (Russia, Austro-Hungary, Germany, France, and Great Britain) directed at the protection or establishment of their spheres of interests.” During the 1990s, for example, Russia and Yugoslavia used force in attempts to quash independence movements in their then constituent components of Chechnya and the ethnically Albanian province of Kosovo.

 Today, the Balkans and the term balkanization are often used as an eponym for the disintegration of multiethnic states and their eventual decay into dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, and civil war. However, this practice has proven to be fraught with the potential for biased misinterpretation. As many historians have pointed out, balkanization is a term often used by imperialistic foreign powers to divert international attention away from their own ethnically divisive policies of control.

For example, as Bulgarian historian and philosopher Maria Todorova notes in her 1997 book Imagining the Balkans, “One of the prejudices and stereotypes related with Balkans and balkanization is the presumed relative innocence of Western Europe, placing responsibility for all accidents and mistakes that happened in Balkans in the 20th century on the Ottoman heritage and Turkey.”

In portraying the historical and sociological image of Europe, some pundits have pejoratively used “the Balkan” in defining “other” cultures as “Oriental, unpredictable, dangerous, chaotic, dirty, lazy, primitive, cruel, selfish, and uncooperative.” However, historical evidence attests instead to the presence of tolerance, cooperation, and hard work among the region’s peoples.

Breakups, Nationalism, and Colonialism

Perhaps rather than generalizing them as balkanization in action,” many violent breakups can be attributed to the fact that in the modern era, nationalism is destined to oppose colonialism.

Balkanization has occurred in places other than the Balkans, often including violent breakups in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, following the dissolution of the British and French colonial empires there. Balkanization is often blamed for such violent breakups, often along ethnic lines. However, the question remains, would even half of these violent conflicts have occurred if colonialism hadn’t first allowed more powerful nations to establish their own borders? If ethnic groups that, had in some cases already established respective nations, not been forced within boundaries that better served the colonizing world powers?

Africa as it exists today, for example, is less an example of balkanization than of nationalistic rejection of colonialism as characterized by the zealous greed with which the imperialistic European powers partitioned Africa without regard for long-established ethnic origin, culture, or religion. 

Formed in 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was comprised of many African leaders who wanted to accelerate the process of European decolonization and gain independence for several new nations. Critics argued that the OAU did little to protect the rights and liberties of African citizens from their own political leaders, often dubbing it the "Dictators' Club.” Amid widespread unrest, the OAU was replaced by the 53-nation African Union in 2002.

In February 2009, newly elected chairman of the African Union, Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi, told the assembled African leaders, “I shall continue to insist that our sovereign countries work to achieve the United States of Africa.” Gaddafi also indicated that the proposed United States of Africa might eventually extend as far west as the Caribbean and other nearby islands featuring a large African diaspora

Gaddafi received harsh criticism for his involvement in the movement, and for failing to gain support for the idea from other African leaders. In 2011, the First Libyan Civil War was fought between forces loyal to Gaddafi and rebel groups seeking to oust his government. Gaddafi was ultimately killed during the Battle of Sirte in October 2011. A week before Gaddafi's death during the Libyan Civil War, South African President Jacob Zuma expressed relief at the regime's downfall, complaining that Gaddafi had been "intimidating" many African heads of state and government to gain influence throughout the continent.

While some believed the United States of Africa plan had died with Gaddafi, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe expressed interest in reviving the project. After a coup d'état in 2017, Mugabe resigned as President and died in September 2019.

Balkanization vs. Devolution

Another problem with the blanket use of the term balkanization is the fact that it is often incorrectly used to describe the more orderly process of devolution—the voluntary transfer of power from a central government to state, regional, or local authorities. During the late 20th century, groups in both federal and unitary systems of government increasingly sought to reduce the power of central governments by devolving power to local or regional governments. For example, supporters of states’ rights in the United States favored diffusing power away from Washington, D.C., toward state governments. The most recent notable instance of devolution occurred in the United Kingdom in 1998 when Parliament enacted the Scotland Act, the Government of Wales Act, and the Northern Ireland Act.

Both balkanization and devolution can result from ethnic differences and an overall feeling of political fragmentation. Devolution, however, usually occurring through conventionally enacted laws, has proven to be far less likely to lead to sub-regional dictatorships or acts of ethnic cleansing. 

Examples Around the World

Since the Ottoman Empire, notable examples of “balkanization” have taken place, particularly in Eastern Europe. Since the early 1990s alone, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the emergence of several new states—many of which were unstable and ethnically mixed—and then to violence between them.

Former Soviet Union

The disrepair of statues of Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Stalin echo the reality of the fall of the Soviet Union.
The disrepair of statues of Soviet leaders such as Lenin and Stalin echo the reality of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Peter Turnley / Getty Images

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, countries such as Ukraine, Lithuania, Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Belarus have established or re-established their independence. The far too commonplace practice of saying that these countries were “created” by the Soviet collapse is a misrepresentation of the historical record that merely contributes to the erasure of their individual histories. 

For example, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 23, 2022, he justified the act with the false narrative that Ukraine is not a real country. That it “belongs” to Russia as part of a “Great Russia” and the “Russian World,” and that there is, according to Putin, no Ukrainian people, no Ukrainian language, and no separate Ukrainian history — all of which contradicts reality.

Ukraine 

Destroyed buildings are seen on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine's major cities.
Destroyed buildings are seen on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine's major cities.

Chris McGrath / Getty Images

The Ukrainian People's Republic emerged from its civil war from 1917 to 1921. The Bolshevik Red Army established control in late 1919 in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War. On December 30, 1922, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became one of the republics that founded the Soviet Union. Later, Soviet policy on the Ukrainian language and culture made Ukrainian the republic’s official language. In the 1930s, Soviet policy turned toward “Russification,” a form of cultural assimilation in which non-Russians surrendered their culture and language in favor of the Russian culture and the Russian language. 

In 1932 and 1933, millions of Ukrainians starved to death in a devastating man-made famine, known as the Holodomor—an assault by the Communist Party and Soviet state launched against the Ukrainian people for resisting Soviet Russification policies. An additional 6 to 8 million people died from hunger in the Soviet Union during this period, of whom 4 to 5 million were Ukrainians.

The Ukrainian Army fought for Ukrainian independence against both Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II. In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev—a Ukrainian—succeeded as head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ND enabled a Ukrainian revival. In 1954 the republic expanded to the south with the transfer of Crimea from Russia. Nevertheless, political repressions against poets, historians, and other intellectuals continued, as in all other parts of the USSR.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union started a period of transition to a market economy, in which Ukraine suffered an eight-year recession. Subsequently, however, the economy experienced a high increase in GDP growth until the economy plunged during the Great Recession.

 Ukraine officially declared itself an independent country on August 24, 1991, when the communist Supreme Soviet parliament of Ukraine proclaimed that Ukraine would no longer follow the laws of the Soviet Union but only the laws of the Ukrainian SSR, thus de facto declaring Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union. On December 1, 1991, voters approved a referendum formalizing independence from the Soviet Union. Over 90% of Ukrainian citizens voted for independence, winning majorities in every region.

On February 8, 1994, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) accepted Ukraine into its Partnership for Peace, a collaborative arrangement open to all non-NATO European countries and post-Soviet states. Russia became a NATO member in June 1994 and conducted various cooperative activities with NATO, including joint military exercises, until 2014, when NATO formally suspended ties with the country. As the Cold War ended, Russia opposed the eastern expansion of NATO. However, thirteen former Soviet partnership members eventually joined the alliance.

Lithuania

Lithuania was already an established empire during the late Middle Ages. According to the European Commission, The first known reference to Lithuania as “Litua” comes from the Quedlinburg Chronicle dated March 9, 1009. In the 11th century, facts about Lithuania also appear in the Ruthenian chronicles. According to the United States State Department Historian, Lithuania was first recognized by the U.S in 1922. When the Soviet Union invaded and took over Lithuania in 1918, the United States refused to acknowledge the takeover, instead, recognizing the long-established democratic government of Lithuania as the legal government which was later suppressed by the Soviet Union.

Yugoslavia

After World War II, the former country of Yugoslavia was established as a federation of six republics—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia—with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines. In addition, the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina were established within Serbia. The restructured Yugoslavia experienced a period of strong economic growth and relative political stability up to the 1980s, under Josip Broz Tito. After he died in 1980, the weakened system of the federal government was left unable to cope with rising economic and political challenges.

Beginning with sometimes violent protests in 1981, Albanians in Kosovo started to demand that their autonomous province be granted the status of a constituent republic. Over the entire decade, tensions between Albanians and Kosovo Serbs remained high over the whole decade, resulting in the growth of Serbian opposition to the autonomy of provinces and the ineffective consensus federal system across Yugoslavia, which was seen as an obstacle to Serbian interests.

Serbia

In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia, and through a series of populist policies assumed de facto control over Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro. However, Milosevic was met with opposition by party leaders of the western constituent republics of Slovenia and Croatia, who advocated greater democratization of the country.

During 1990, the socialists, former communists, lost power to ethnic separatist parties in the first multi-party elections held across Yugoslavia, except in Serbia and Montenegro, where Milosevic and his allies won. Nationalist rhetoric on all sides became increasingly heated. Between June 1991 and April 1992, four constituent republics declared independence, with only Serbia and Montenegro remaining federated. On February 4, 2003, the parliament of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia voted to disband itself, officially dissolving the country and resulting in a new country called Serbia and Montenegro. 

Serbia and Montenegro

Growing separatism in Montenegro meant that the Constitution of Serbia and Montenegro included a provision calling for a referendum on the question of Montenegrin independence. In 2006, the referendum was5 passed, leading to the dissolution of Serbia and Montenegro, and the establishment of the separate independent republics of Serbia and Montenegro. While Germany recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, the status of ethnic Serbs outside of Serbia and Montenegro, and that of ethnic Croatians outside Croatia, remained unsolved. After a string of inter-ethnic incidents, the Yugoslav Wars ensued, first in Croatia and then, most severely, in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina—a landlocked "cauldron of conflict" of four million people of Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian descent. The wars left economic and political damage in the region that is still felt there today. 

Sources

  • Bobic, Nikolina. “Balkanization and Global Politics.” Routledge, December 18, 2020, ISBN-10: ‎0367730812.
  • Todorova, Maria. “Imagining the Balkans.” Oxford University Press, April 15, 2009, ISBN-10: ‎0195387864.
  • Mestrovic, Stjepan. “The Balkanization of the West: The Confluence of Postmodernism and Postcommunism.” ‎ Routledge, December 23, 2016, ISBN-10: ‎1138155292.
  • “A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Lithuania.” Office of the Historian, United States State Department, https://history.state.gov/countries/lithuania.
  • Magocsi, Paul Robert. “A History of Ukraine.” University of Toronto Press, July 1996, ISBN 9780802078209.
  • “A historical timeline of post-independence Ukraine.” PBS News Hour, Feb 22, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/a-historical-timeline-of-post-independence-ukraine.
  • Zemon, Rubin. “’Us,’ ‘Them,’ and the Problem with ‘Balkanization’.” University of California, Santa Barbara, Global e, March 6, 2018, https://globalejournal.org/global-e/march-2018/us-them-and-problem-balkanization#.


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Longley, Robert. "What Is Balkanization?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 28, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-is-balkanization-1435451. Longley, Robert. (2022, July 28). What Is Balkanization? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-balkanization-1435451 Longley, Robert. "What Is Balkanization?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-balkanization-1435451 (accessed December 5, 2022).