Do the Balkans Exist?

IWMPost Article

Twenty-five years after framing the Balkans as Europe’s alter ego in her groundbreaking book Imagining the Balkans, the IWMpost invited historian Maria Todorova to comment on the image of the Balkans today.

I have been tasked with a 1200-word “statement” on the Balkans and do so in my hypostases as scholar and citizen. Immediately after 1989, an acquaintance who had quickly moved from an East European embassy to become a consultant on Russia and Eastern Europe in an American financial firm told me that the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and nation states no longer mattered: “All this will be territories.” In the short term, events belied his neoliberal optimism; in the long term, though, there is some truth to it, depending on how one instrumentalizes “territory” versus “region.”

After 1989, the “Balkans,” after the slumber in which they were submerged in the bipolar Cold War world, were revived as an exclusionary ghetto. It was around this time that the stereotypes about the Balkans that had been formed mostly after the First World War resurfaced in the course of a twofold process. The first was the issue of EU expansion. The strategy and costs of this expansion, and the potential competition between candidates, resulted in the differential treatment of Eastern Europe’s subregions. The Central European ideology of the 1980s evoked the Balkans as its constituting other. Rhetorically successful, it has practically all but disappeared after it achieved its goals. The second coinciding process was Yugoslavia’s bloody disintegration. None of the other Balkan countries were ever involved, yet the Yugoslav wars were named a “Third Balkan war.” To a great extent, this was the result of an attempt to restrict the problems to Europe’s southeastern corner. Rhetorically, it was based on cultural arguments, particularly the “clash of civilizations” theory, positing that international conflicts would occur along cultural, especially religious, fault lines. It was the time of the blooming of balkanism, the discursive paradigm that described the region as essentially different from Europe and legitimized the policy of relative non-involvement and isolation. This ended with the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. There were a host of political and moral considerations for the 1999 intervention, not least the desire to revive the last European organization in which the United States played a leading role. Motivations apart, the bombing clearly had unintended consequences. Before the Kosovo war, the dominant paradigm applied to the Balkans translated into its practical ghettoization. This was balkanism in action. The rhetorical legitimization of the 1999 intervention—as defense of universal human rights—effectively brought the Balkans back into the sphere of Western politics and brought the EU and United States deep into the region. They are running several protectorates in the newly devised area of the “Western Balkans.” The rest of the region is no more Balkan, but effectively part of Europe. Following their NATO accession, in three waves—in 2004, 2007, and 2013—Balkan states became EU members, and Albania and the remaining Yugoslav splinters are recognized as potential candidates. This is accompanied by the curious but predictable subsiding of the balkanist rhetoric, though it is still encountered in journalism, fiction, and scholarship. Even the vocal and often spiteful objections to Turkey’s accession focus on Islam, Middle Eastern culture, and women’s or human rights, but are not clad in the balkanist rhetoric. Nor was Greece’s financial predicament. Thus, while the rhetoric is still alive, submerged but readily at hand, it no longer serves power politics. Balkanism has not disappeared but has shifted from the center stage of politics. 

How do we make sense of the region in academia? The Balkans and Southeastern Europe are elements of two different cartographic taxonomies, even as they are used interchangeably. Southeastern Europe belongs to a classification that presumes Europe as a bounded territory with a center and respectively with regional positions in relation to this center, such as northern, eastern, western, southern, and northwestern, northeastern, southwestern and southeastern. But not all of these are in use and in this constellation Southeastern Europe is a marked category. As such it is subordinate to the unmarked ones. The Balkans, on the other hand, although clearly a European subcategory, does not carry this implicitly; it is of the same family as regional designations like the Caucasus, Scandinavia, the Baltic, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia etc., based on a prominent geographical or linguistic characteristic. “Balkan” is the older of the two names, although as a designation of the peninsula, both stem from the nineteenth century. The term Balkan has a number of manifestations that can be grouped into three categories. At its simplest, it is a name: the name of a mountain (documented from the fifteenth century), later the designation of a region as well as the political entities within, and it is also used as a personal name. Secondly, Balkan is employed as metaphor, mostly a negative one. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it became a pejorative, a symbol for the aggressive, intolerant, barbarian, savage, semi-developed, semi-civilized, semi-oriental. This array of stereotypes, although of relatively recent origins, stepped on a deeper layer of oppositions between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Europe and Asia, West and East, but especially Christianity and Islam. Based on the metaphoric use of the notion, a specific power discourse developed in the twentieth century. Its utilization in the real world of politics—balkanism—shapes attitudes and actions toward the Balkans. 

The Balkan region can be also conceptualized as a space in the Lefevrian sense as material space and its representation as well as the spaces of representation (the emotions and meanings incorporated into everyday practices). Even more helpful is the tripartite division of David Harvey into an absolute space (representing the preexisting and immoveable grid amenable to standardized measurement), relative space (dependent upon the frame of reference), and relational space. Relational space holds that there is no such thing as space outside of the processes through time that define it, and that it is impossible to disentangle space from time. In line with this and coming to the third category in which the Balkans can be understood (alongside name and metaphor), they can be approached through a scholarly category of analysis, the notion of historical legacy, which is intimately intertwined with the character of the Balkans as a concrete historical, not simply geographic region; that is, as a space-time entity. While the theoretical argument cannot be developed here, suffice it to say that thinking in terms of historical legacies—characterized by simultaneous, overlapping, and gradually waning effects—allows to emphasize the complexity and plasticity of the historical process. In this case any region is approached no longer as a static territorial entity but appears as a complex palimpsest of differently shaped entities and different cultural spaces, which not only exposes the porosity of internal frontiers, but questions the absolute stability of external ones. In the narrow sense of the word, sticking to its name, the Balkans are the Ottoman legacy. In practice, research into the region moves deeper in time (as well as ahead) and in the broad sense of the word, the Balkans emerge as a complex palimpsest of consecutive legacies, which have territorially included it in different mega-regions, from prehistory until today, as well as in different social and cultural spaces, not necessarily matching the regional demarcation. 

So, do the Balkans exist? As a scholarly category, definitely yes. As a geopolitical one, no (at the moment). But this does not mean that borders have disappeared. The region is subsumed in a “territory” that has clearly defined hierarchical borders within Europe, and these follow the fault line between a wealthy north/northwest and a (relatively poor) east/south/southeast other. In this “territory,” the Balkans play the role of a cordon sanitaire to the east (which they always had but now in reverse) and, in addition, of the permeable wall of Fortress Europa against the “barbarians.”

Maria Todorova is Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.