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Balkans Versus Southeastern Europe

Nada Švob-Đokić
Scientific Adviser, Institute for International Relations, Zagreb

The terms "Balkans" and "Southeastern Europe" have been rather widely used and discussed in the last decade of the 20th century, often in controversial ways. The origins of both terms still remain uncatalogued to a certain extent and thus "an issue of political and spiritual geography" (Pippidi, Andrei, A Plea for the Study of Southeastern Europe, http://www.unc.edu/depts/europe/conferences/ACLS98) that depends too much on the present emotional and political interpretations testifying to a deep and long-lasting regional identity crisis. Let us look briefly into the history of these terms and notions.

Balkan appears to be the name of the mountain (ancient Haemus, and later, in Bulgarian, Stara Planina). In her extensive and detailed overview of the name of the Balkans, Maria Todorova (Todorova, Maria, Imagining the Balkans, OUP, 1997, pp. 1-37.) describes the history of knowledge and understanding of the "Balkans" and tells the reader that the word is the name for bare cliffs, that it is of Turkish origin and that it replaced the ancient (Greek) name of Haemus. It entered the peninsula with the arrival of the Ottoman Turks. However, it took a few centuries to apply the name of the mountain to the idea of the peninsula and to understand the shape and character of the peninsula itself. The geographical perception of the area remained unclear for centuries because of the lack of geographical knowledge, but also, and perhaps mainly, because both the Turks and the Europeans regarded it as a kind of peripheral, as something "in between" the Western and the Eastern world.

In his work Goea, published in 1808, the German geographer August Zeune was the first to apply the name "Balkan" to the idea of the peninsula, as he was convinced that the mountain of Balkan was spread all over the region. The French geologist and geographer Ami Boue correctly described the mountain in the 1830s and also called it by the name of "Balkan", and not the Old Mountain (Stara Planina), which is its Bulgarian name. European authors of the time preferred to rely either on the traditions of what was taken to be the ancient knowledge, or, later, to their own national traditions. French and British authors used to call the region la Turquie d'Europe / European Turkey, thus linking its geographical and sociopolitical belonging.

On the eve of the Berlin Congress (1878) the term Sudost Europa was coined. Maria Todorova (Todorova, ibid, p.28.) mentions that the German geographer Theobald Fischer proposed that the Balkan peninsula should be named Sudosteuropa. The name was introduced by "the renowned Balkan specialist, scholar and diplomat Johann Georg von Hahn". The two notions, the Balkan peninsula and Southeastern Europe were used as synonyms. Moreover, for almost a century "Southeastern Europe" alternated with "the Balkans" and "the Near East".

Although Sudoesteuropa was to become the "neutral, non-political and non-ideological concept" (Maull, Otto, "Landerkunde von Sudosteuropa", Enzyklopedie der Erdkunde, Leipzig & Vienna, 1929, p. 299.), its destiny was to become burdened with connotative meanings in a similar way to the Balkans. The first scholars and politicians who adopted the term "Southeastern Europe" were Austrian and German liberals. The Berlin politicians and officials used the term Mitteleuropa instead, which marked an intermediary space between Germany and Russia, and thus only partly covered some of the "Balkanhalbinsel". The Austrians cultivated the notion of Sudost Europa particularly after the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1907). In the 1930s and 1940s the supposedly neutral term was completely discredited. "Sudosteuropa became an important concept in the geopolitical views of the Nazis" (Todorova, p. 28 ) and a strategic point in the expansion of the German Reich.

Notwithstanding the geopolitical and cultural connotations and implications of the term Southeastern Europe, it is evident today that it also became a part of spiritual geography and in this sense followed the term Balkans. In the geographical sense, however, Southeastern Europe has been and remains broader than the Balkans. It encompasses Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, the European part of Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia.

A number of Southeast European countries opt for identification with Central Europe rather than with the Balkans or Southeastern Europe. Their geographical self-identification reflects today the spiritual background of the whole problem of their positioning in Europe and in the different value systems that it may stand for.

The gradual collapse of the Ottoman empire and the rise of interest in the area allowed for the development of different approaches and views of the Balkans. These followed national traditions of geographical, political, ethnographic and general cultural knowledge. It seems that the Anglo-Saxon, American, Turkish, Russian, German and French sources have almost equally contributed to the European interpretations of the Balkans and Southeastern Europe.

French and German traditions may be taken as illustrative. The conceptual differences between them seem to have persisted and have thus provided a strong basis for the development of the stereotypes of the whole region.

Thus the term "Balkans" initially related to French terminology, stresses:

  • orientalism of the region (Turkish influences, close links with the Near East);
  • intraregional borderlines perceived as ethnic and national;
  • religions typical of the area: Islam, Orthodoxy and Catholicism;
  • strong social traditionalism and dominance of patriarchal structures;
  • territorial disorganization reflected in the persistence of feudal structures and small estates;
  • peasantry is a dominant social structure;
  • the region is underdeveloped;
  • in the geographical sense it encompasses the area south of the rivers Danube and Sava;
  • the region is seen as a "unified entity".

In this interpretation the term "Balkans" alternates with "Sudosteuropa" in the understanding of the area as a region, i.e., a certain geographical, historical, and political entity. Internal diversification is accepted, but the overall history of the region is taken as the basis for possible standardization and stereotypy of it.

The term "Southeastern Europe" which stems initially from German terminology, stresses:

  • the Western orientation of the area, achieved mainly through Austro-Hungarian and German influences;
  • a regional concept similar to the concept of Central Europe;
  • intraregional borderlines of a mostly political, commercial and spiritual character;
  • religions typical of the area are Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam;
  • social eclecticism reflects social modernization and westernization and it is perceived as being stronger than social traditionalism;
  • territorial re-organization typically reflects the fall of feudal structures and evolving markets;
  • the dominance of the peasantry is challenged by the strong tradition of urban life and the role of a nascent bourgeoisie;
  • dependent development is seen as a prevailing mode of development;
  • in a geographical sense, the region encompasses all of Southeastern Europe, up to the Carpathian mountains;
  • the region is seen as a composite and not clearly defined whole. (This attempt at classification is rather provisory and simplified. It was used as an introductory illustration for the discussion of the understanding of the Balkans/Southeastern Europe at the course on "Redefining Cultural Identities: Southeastern Europe", Dubrovnik, May 2001. I would nevertheless like to mention the article that inspired my effort to sort out different connotations of the terms "Balkans" and "Southeastern Europe": Ristović, M. "The Birth of Southeastern Europe" and the "Death of the Balkans", Association for Social History, http://www.udi.org.yu/Founders/Ristovic/Birth.html)

This interpretation of Southeastern Europe implies elements of modernization of the European periphery. (Cf., for example, Berend, I.T., Ranki, Gy., Evropska periferija i industrijalizacija 1780-1914 (European Periphery and Industrialization 1780-1914), Naprijed, Zagreb, 1996.) It may stand for a more dynamic concept of development and integration of the whole region into the European Union, and thus offers a kind of post-neocolonial approach to the whole region. Being in a way more functional, it particularly stresses the lack of intraregional consistency and links.

It could be said that the "Balkan" perspective on the whole region points out elements like peripherals (of both Europe and Asia), underdevelopment, historical diversity, lack of internal consistency and communication. The "Southeastern" perspective stresses particularly the developmental dependency of the area, traditional underdevelopment and internal regional inconsistency. None of these elements are ascribed to either "orientalism" or "westernism". The cultural history of the region, and its political history tend to be classified as the problems of the past, and not of the future. The region seems to be quite well known by now, and although its classification may still take more time and effort, the myths of both the Balkans and Southeastern Europe are practically unveiled. However, both the "Balkan" and the "Southeastern European" classification remain far from being scientifically rationalized. They both depend on the present cultural and economic influences and processes of redefinition of cultural identities in the region.

Conceptual differences between the "Balkans" and "Southeastern Europe" seem to reflect some similarities: the terminology in both cases is rather inconsistent; geographical borders of the region remain loose and they are not strictly defined; hegemonic influences are stressed (be they historical, like those of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, or contemporary, like those of the European Union, the USA and Russia). Analytical approaches to both the Balkans and Southeastern Europe are not clearly standardized. In both cases this is justified by the fact that inner regional differences are substantial and ever more visible, that the communication links are weak or non-existent, that there are serious fluctuations in intraregional trade and exchange of all sorts, and that the whole area is burdened by social disruptions, general underdevelopment and dependent modernization.

During the 20th century there have been constant efforts to build some type of political federation among the countries of this area. (The idea of a Balkan (political) federation can be traced back to 1844 when Ilija Garašanin in his work Nacertanije laid the foundations of the political program expressed later as a maxim "The Balkans belong to Balkan peoples". The first Balkan federal alliance was established in 1866-68 (Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Romania allied against Turkey); the second in 1912 (Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro allied against Turkey); the third in 1913 (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro against Bulgaria). The Balkan alliance agreement signed on 9 August 1954 at Bled, Slovenia, provided for political co-operation and economic assistance between Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey, and was preceded by the agreement on friendship signed in Ankara in 1953.) The most successful of these projects may have been the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918. Following the Treaty of Versailles, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established. Yugoslavia was proclaimed a republic on 29 November 1943, and a federal republic of five nations in 1946. The formal disintegration of this federation began in May 1991, with the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. The disintegration process evolved very soon into the war in Croatia and Bosnia. The crisis of disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation has not been resolved for more than ten years now. So far it has involved the intervention of the UN, USA and NATO military forces, as well as a number of diplomatic interventions by the EU and numerous individual countries.

It is precisely the crisis of the disintegration of Yugoslavia that actualized the issues of cultural identities of peoples living in the region and of the understanding of the whole area. Thus the "Balkans" and "Southeastern Europe" are questioned again, in the light of these transitional (systemic), political, economic and overall developmental changes.

In this light, the Balkans are burdened with very negative connotations. Stereotypes of cruelty, irrational, emotional and uncivilized behavior are ascribed to the Balkan heritage. The attempt to re-integrate the area economically, politically, and, perhaps, culturally has been strongly resented by the nationalist movements and rejected through the processes of building up separate national states. The EU strategies to establish peace and support democratization in the area are bringing forward an attempt to redefine it conceptually. Following such ideas, Southeastern Europe has been re-introduced to express the main idea of turning the whole area into an integrated European region. (The EU has taken numerous initiatives along these lines. It may be said that these efforts culminated in the signing of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe on 10th June 1999. Most programs, projects and strategies for the region are called Southeast European, while the term "Balkans" has almost completely vanished and remains confined to issues such as historical heritage, cultures, cultural diversity, etc.) This process might help further rationalization of many developments and problems experienced during the war in ex-Yugoslavia and post-socialist transition of most countries from the region. Unfortunately, so far it has been practically induced through the direct political, diplomatic and military involvement of European countries and the USA. The attempts at self-definition of countries and societies in this part of Europe still remain disconnected and very diversified, but they also seem to be turning from the past to the future perspective. Thus the identification with the Balkans may gradually slip into the past and historical perspective, while the more neutral (geographical) and perhaps less connotative identification with the Southeastern European area may gain more ground.

Such a possible attempt at self-definition might develop as a political or economic project, and in a way correspond with the ideas of the re-establishment of Central Europe. The European Union itself supports such a type of regionalization hoping to achieve gradual harmonization among different peoples and nations based on the affirmation of cultural differences.

In this respect, conceptual differences between "Southeastern" and "Central Europe" have been constantly invoked. The revival of both Central European and Southeast European regional concepts may show that they are not based on intraregional consistency, good links among the neighboring countries and peoples and an awareness of belonging to some geographical, historical or cultural entity. On the contrary, ideas of both Central and Southeastern Europe primarily serve the purpose of providing a political umbrella for the full emancipation of national states, national cultures and values, national languages, etc. Identification with a particular national concept is supposed to help integration into the European Union, and most nations in the area consider that they deserve an "individual approach" as a starting point for integration. Such an approach is sometimes blended with the idea of full self-affirmation and affirmation of the particular national values which are still considered as basics in the definition of individual identities. This may involve intolerance to other nations and national minorities, which is usually taken to be an obstacle to full national emancipation. A paradoxical situation is thus created: national emancipation may be interpreted as exclusion of others, and not as inclusion of a nation into wider multilateral integration.

Notwithstanding the connotations that the terms "Balkans" and "Southeastern Europe" involve, it should be said that the general process of democratization and transition in the area has to be blended with different aspects of integration processes, be they global or regional. Although Southeastern Europe is not constituted as a region in a contemporary sense, the Balkans can hardly be taken to stand for this concept either. The Southeastern European concept seems to be geographically more neutral and based on a flexible mutuality: promotion of trade, common development projects, sharing of infrastructure, etc., and in this respect it seems to represent a more open and more general option. Within such a concept the values of the Balkan cultural heritage, artistic specificity, regional diversity, blending of different cultures that have remained in contact for centuries in this area, and many other specific traits should not be marginalized.


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