Yet another borderland: the Balkans

This is part two of a review of my recent tour through the Balkans, taking me to Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria.

In the late fourteenth century, the Ottoman Empire increased its pressure on what then was the Serbian Empire. The attempt to take the Balkans to cut off Constantinople from Christian Europe and finally take over the Byzantine Empire cumulated in the famous `Battle of Kosovo´ (`Schlacht am Amselfeld´ in German) near Pristina. Despite an undecided outcome of the battle, the Serbian forces were weakened and a period of Ottoman control over the Balkan began. This battle and the Serbian fight against the Ottomans, however, prompted the veneration of war heroes and the scripting of legends, especially on the Serbian side and within the Serbian Orthodox church. The myth of the `Battle of Kosovo´ and Serbian stronghold against Muslims was created.

battle of kosovo

The `Battle of Kosovo´


Although World War I did certainly not have one singular cause only, the Balkans played a central role in this `Great War´ at the beginning of the twentieth century. The assassination of Austrian’s heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 was meant to liberate Bosnia-Herzegovina and unite the Slavic provinces on the Balkans. The Austrian and German monarchies on decay, with an excessive bureaucracy, reluctance to necessary reforms, and powerful military officials who were eager for war, sealed the fate of Europe and the world for the years to come. 70 million people from 40 countries were under arms and about 17 million were killed in the four years between 1914 and 1918. Volker Ackermann, in his recension of Volker Berghahn´s Der Erste Weltkrieg (München: C.H. Beck Verlag 2003) states that the main reasons for World War I were to be found in the “[s]ystem of alliances of big European powers and its solidification into two blocks, in the arms race (particularly at sea), and in the imperialist expansionist policy of Europe. Furthermore, domestic forces and conflicts, like unresolved minority issues within the multinational empires, were presented as causes” (translation by the author).”[1] Hence, once again, internal heterogeneity as much as external influences played a crucial role for the outbreak of a terrible war, with the Balkans as a central space.

europe pre-world war I

Pre-World War I Europe


About 70 years later, the so-called Balkan Wars began. On top of extensive ethnic and religious overlaps, an economic crisis with a controversy about the distribution of funding, and political uncertainty after the death of Tito, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union and increased nationalism in Yugoslavia led to the wars, beginning in 1991. At the beginning, especially the wealthier Slovenian and Croatian provinces in the north pushed for independence or a looser form of federation. In 1990 they held democratic elections and like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia a couple of months later, declared independence in 1991. The wars in Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-1995), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), Kosovo (1999) and the Albanian uprising in Macedonia (2001) claimed the lives of about 120.000 people, the vast majority (~100.000) in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sadly, but no surprise when we look at the map below.

former yogoslavia

Ethnic/religious groups on the western Balkans


After the collapse of Yugoslavia in the course of these wars, states emerged, which have not been composed of homogeneous ethnic and religious groups. While these states formed around ethnic majorities, there are still multiple overlaps. Especially problematic is the dispersion of religious affiliations that are not even remotely portrayed by the newly introduced boundaries. Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Montenegrins, Albanians, Macedonians, Greeks, and Bulgarians are not only found in the countries similar to their names, but protrude far beyond them. They are living among other minorities or the dominating ethnic group in different states. A minority exceptionally suffering from neglect and disregard almost across the whole Balkans have been the Roma. As our visits to Roma settlements have shown, many of them are still deprived of basic services, and live in enclaves under very poor conditions.

When it comes to religion, the main denominations are Roman Catholic Christians in the northern parts (Croatia and Slovenia), Orthodox Christians in and around Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, and Muslims predominantly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in areas with Albanian populations (Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia).

According to Carey and Raciborski, we are confronted here with a “post-communist regime formation“ (2004, p 192). Using a post-colonial angle for looking at the problems on the Balkans and investigating the role of the Soviet Union, the authors claim that “the sudden collapse of the Soviet Empire, […] left many colonial structures in place but provided for different neocolonial opportunities” (ibid). If we consider influences from Europe (the support for the formation and recognition of Kosovo, EU-membership for Slovenia and Croatia, EU-candidacy for Serbia and Montenegro), and the Middle East (massive inflow of money into Muslim dominated spaces, particularly visible with the construction of Mosques) up until today, we see that not only historic geopolitical facts can be blamed for interfering with local policies. Hence, as Carey and Raciborski show by dwelling on the neo-colonial discourse, the historic mode of the Balkans in-between big powers is still valid and formal independence is reached at the expense of an even tougher dictate of economic- and financial hegemony.

Here is an overview of the ethnic and religious dispersion in the Balkans. For matters of availability of data, I will stick to the state level (data from the CIA-World Factbook):

In Albania, the by far biggest ethnic share of the population is Albanians with about 95%, with 3% Greeks and very few Roma, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians. However, data for the Greek minority vary between 1% and 12% depending on who does the counting. Regarding religion, about 70% of the population are Muslims, about 20% Albanian Orthodox, and 10% Roman Catholic. The Greeks are mainly situated in the south of the country; there are small patches of Macedonians in the east, and very few Montenegrins and Serbs in the north.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, probably still the most contested state with no end or solution in sight, is ethnically divided between Bosniaks (slightly below 48%), Serbs (about 37%), and Croats (circa 14%). On the religion side, around 40% are Muslim, 31% Orthodox, and 15% Roman Catholic. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two main parts are the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the southwest and Republica Srpska, occupying the eastern and northern parts of the country.

The main ethnic groups in Bulgaria are 77% Bulgarians, 8% Turks, and 4.4% Roma. With about one third of the population unaffiliated with any religion or unknown, about 60% are Eastern Orthodox, 7.4% Sunni Muslims, and 0.4% Shia Muslims. The Turk minorities are predominantly living in the southeast of the country, and Roma populations are living in or around urban centres, as in all other Balkan states.

Being another relatively homogeneous country in terms of ethnicity, Croatia consists of close to 90% Croats, 4.5% Serbs, and small minorities of Bosniaks, Hungarians, Slovenes, Czechs, and Roma. In contrast to neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia is predominantly Christian with about 88% Roman Catholics, 4.4% Orthodox, and 1.3 % Muslims. The Serbian minority lives mainly in the very east and in the central part of Croatia that borders the north-western tip of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As Greece does not collect data on other ethnicities than Greek, the only information is that 93% are Greek and the rest `others´. On the religions side, the majority is even bigger, with 98% being Greek Orthodox, and 1.3% Muslim. Despite Greek´s demand on ethnic homogeneity, there are certainly ethnic groups from Macedonia and Bulgaria in the Northern provinces. Likewise, there are populations with an ethnic Turkish background in the northeast of Greece.

The youngest state in the region, Kosovo, which is not recognised by Serbia and other countries, consists of about 92% Albanians, and 8% Serbs, small groups of Bosniaks, Roma, Turks, and other minorities. There is no data for religious confessions but there are mainly Muslims, and minorities of the Serbian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. The main minority (and reason for severe differences until today) are the Serbs who live mainly in the north and in some spots in the east and south of Kosovo.

In Macedonia 64.2% are Macedonian, 25.2% Albanian, 3.9% Turkish, 2.7% Roma, and 1.8% Serbs. Religion-wise, 64.7% are Macedonian Orthodox, 33.3% Muslims, with the rest small minorities. The Albanian and Turkish parts of the population are mainly situated in the northwest of the state, as well as in the capital Skopje.

Montenegro´s dispersion of ethnicities is 43% Montenegrins, 32% Serbians, 8% Bosniaks, 5%, Albanian, and minorities of Croats and Roma. The religious distribution is 74.2% Orthodox, 17.7% Muslims, and 3.5% Catholics. While Montenegrins occupy the centre of the state, the Serbian population lives mainly in the north, east and along the coast, and the Albanians along the southern fringes of the country.

In Serbia the dominating ethnicity of the Serbs make up 82.9%, Hungarians 3.9%, Bosniaks 1.8%, Roma 1.4%, and Montenegrins 0.9%. The religious confessions are 85% Serbian Orthodox, 5.5% Catholic, 3.2% Muslim, and 1.1% Protestant. The northern province of Vojvodina is very diverse and most of the Hungarian, Croat and Bosniak minorities live there. Albanians live east of today´s Kosovo, Rumanians in the east, Bulgarians in the southeast, and Montenegrins in the southwest.

Finally, in Slovenia 83.1% are Slovene, 2% Serb, 1.8% Croat, and 1.1%, Bosniak. In terms of religion, 57.8% are Catholic, 2.4% Muslim, 2.3% Orthodox, and 0.9% other Christian. The rest is without confession or unspecified. As explained above, there is no official boundary of the Balkans and one way to delimit the region towards the north is to follow natural boundaries like rivers, why only the southern part of Slovenia would be part of the Balkans.


The Balkans


My very brief and superficial attempt of a contemporary summary, after my trip:

The northern states like Slovenia and Croatia are relatively calm and meanwhile members of the European Union.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is still one of the most unresolved areas on the Balkans, with no real end to conflict or prospect for state-building in sight. Its heterogeneity, in both ethnic and religious terms, particularly the division between Muslim Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, leaves it at a seemingly intractable political impasse. Only massive pressure from the IMF and the EU, threatening to freeze financial support, brought about a government in 2011. There is, however, no congruent political commitment to build a state comprising of the three groups.

Serbia, with the multiethnic province of Vojvodina in the north and a strong affiliation to Montenegro, still suffers from the loss of power over the wider territory of Yugoslavia. Many Serbs feel they have been betrayed by the west since they were the brave Christians standing up against Muslims throughout history. Particularly the Serbian minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo strongly oppose their incorporation into states they vigorously reject. International pressure, especially from the EU, of which Serbia wants to become a member, led to a more or less stable situation in Kosovo, at least at the moment. Crossing the border between Serbia and Kosovo was as smooth and without problems as anywhere else on the trip.

Most of the Kosovars think of themselves as Albanians and only accepted the foundation of Kosovo because it would have been politically impossible to officially unite the region with Albania. So the situation is a compromise to have at least independence from Serbia. The difference to the northern Serbian part, symbolised by the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, is nevertheless huge, with the Serbian populations reluctance to live in a state with Albanians.

Montenegro seems a little of the radar and holds close relations to Serbia, not least because the large number of Serbs in the state. Furthermore, we did not go there, so that I did not have the chance to talk to people and get an impression of the atmosphere.

Macedonia is also very heterogeneous. The official state tries very hard to manufacture a national identity, which long crossed the boundary to absurdity, especially visible through neo-classical buildings and sculptures all over Skopje. The division between Macedonians and Albanians again splits the country into Orthodox and Muslim groups, leading to a de facto division of the capital Skopje. Another conflict is between Macedonia and Greece, as the Greeks do not accept the name of the new state, because one of their provinces is also called Macedonia. There are of course deeper historic roots to this conflict, since Alexander the Great is tightly interwoven with the name Macedonia, and both sides try to capitalise on this and the question who the `real´ Macedonians are.

Greece, Bulgaria and Rumania have not been involved in the violent conflict that shattered the Balkans during the last decades. With all three states begin members of the EU, a common denominator might be the excessive, and partly open corruption and mismanagement. In Bulgaria, holding most of the Balkan Mountains, which gave the region its name, for instance, I witnessed the gathering of thousands of people every evening to protest against the blatant unscrupulousness of the new government.

What I also saw, and what actually impressed me, was the creativity and will to change something in numerous activist groups, run by young people. Although no one posesses much in a material sense, particularly young people gather together, start initiatives, and become active where official bodies are politically bound, terribly slow, corrupt or incompetent. Coming from architecture, I also noticed that many of these initiatives are related to the built environment and the work for `space´ in a wider sense. For me, this once more picks up on the tendency of loss of public space for the benefit of private investment. This is not only the well known story of privatisation of profit and socialisation of deficit, but the attempt to silently take away space from the people to prevent them from becoming politically active. Although a minority, many people on the Balkans show that it is worthwhile fighting intransparity, corruption, and favouritism, and being active in reclaiming the city, or `space´ as such.

I would like to thank Rosalina Babourkova for sharing her experience with Roma communities with me and for organising a fascinating research tour around the Balkans.