Balkanization = to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units
• bal·kan·i·za·tion

Etymology: Balkan Peninsula • Date: 1919 • first appeared in an American book by Mowrer to signify the creation of a medley of hopelessly mixed races and small states prey to the violent promptings of their own passions



"The current attitudes towards the Balkans seem to leave intact the old hierarchical structures in Europe in which the North-West is the most enlightened corner and therefore occupies the self-conferred leadership role, while the Balkans continue to play out European fears and taboos on the continent's edge. They continue to offer the site for the irrational and the obscene."

- Vesna Goldsworthy, Last Stop on the Orient Express: The Balkans and the Politics of British (Inter)vention


Maria Todorova has argued that a unified discourse of balkanism emerged at the outset of the twentieth century, specifically around the outbreak of the Balkan wars and World War I. Rooted in the Ottoman legacy, the extreme ethnic heterogeneity and perceived mixture of Oriental and European traits in the region, most Europeans found themselves perplexed before the ambiguity and complexity the Balkans seemed to hold for those accustomed to homogenized national territories. Based on the precarious borders and political upheavals in the region that were closely tied to Great Power intervention in the Balkans, this heterogeneity was soon pathologized as an unstable state of impurity, a dangerous volatility that threatened to pollute and bring disorder to Europe. With the hardening of racial discourses in this early period of the twentieth century, a verdict was passed on the Balkans as a zone of racial impurity, whose peoples were the product of a threatening conflation of sameness and difference, partially Oriental, incompletely European, oscillating between both and neither. Symbolic geopolitics framed the Balkans as geographically integral to Europe, yet culturally alien, constituting Europe’s anticivilization or dark side within (Vesna Goldsworthy 1999).

These characterizations were rooted in a eurocentric and ultimately developmental paradigm, in which Europe (particularly northwestern Europe) represented the pinnacle of progress, enlightenment, and rationality, while the Balkans were condemned to an “intermediate state between barbarity and civilization” (Kennan), a lower and backward stage of development ruled by violent and barbarous passions of a semi-oriental nature. In balkanist discourses, Balkan nationalism was portrayed as primitive, bloodthirsty, a nationalism of a lower order that needed to be restrained by the civilized and enlightened nationalism of Europe. Balkan violence was similarly framed as more primitive and barbaric, rooted in brutal tribal passions in contrast to the rationalistic and superior technological warfare of Europeans.

In this eurocentric narrative of Europe, modernization for the Balkans implied Europeanization of the Balkans - European progress was to be achieved by a “purification” of the Balkans to rid it of its barbaric passions and backwardness. Specifically, this meant passing from the so-called primitive nationalist particularisms and extreme heterogeneity of the Balkans to an “emulat...[ion] of the homogenous European nation-state as the normative form of social organization” (Todorova 13).

Recently, throughout the 1990s and in the wake of the NATO bombing of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, we have seen a major recrudescence of balkanist discourses that pose the region as a threat that could taint Europe with its violent impurities and instability. Furthermore, what is necessary is to “de-balkanize” and purify them before they might be allowed to “(re?)enter Europe” (as Clinton has called for). In terms of the west’s response to such Balkan strife, media and military technologies are being used more than ever as a way to both violently contain and distance the contaminating effects of such impurities within their borders. Indeed, the two primary sites for the reconstruction of balkanist discourses are the western media and foreign policy arenas.

The resurgence of balkanist discourse in Western media coverage of the dissolution of Yugoslavia is pervasive. Over the course of the 1990s, a progressive reorganization of the symbolic geography of the Balkans occurred that cast the region outside of 'civilized' Europe. These media discourses have an obsessively local focus that prevents any considration of the regional or international factors that have played a role in the Balkan spectacle. Anything negative or violent that occurred was due to purely indegenous factors based on essentialized balkanist traits, never to the shaping of local factors and competing nationalisms in response to broader geopolitical processes or Western actions in the region. The extreme visibility and focus on local nationalist dynamics that confirm balkanist perspectives of the region lies in marked contrast to the invisible and assumed backdrop of authority and legitimizing agency that Europe and NATO now carry in the region. Yet, as Misha Glenny has shown, the particular dynamics of competing local nationalisms in the Balkans have always been shaped by Great Power interests in the region, and the outcome more often than not has been determined by “domestic imperatives in great power foreign policy [rather] than by ancient enmities” or local interests (Todorova).

18th century Austro-Hungarian military map depicting the Austro-Hungarian attack on a Belgrade under Ottoman rule


'At first we were confused. The East thought that we were West while the West considered us to be the
East,' Some of us misunderstood our place in this clash of currents, so they cried that we belong to neither side, and others that we belong exclusively to one side or the other. But I tell you, Irinej, we are doomed by fate to be the East in the West, and the West in the East, to acknowledge only heavenly Jerusalem beyond us and here on earth -- no-one.

- St Sava (Nemanjic, 1175-1235), the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, writing in an epistle


In Európa Köldöken (The Navel of Europe), his tellingly titled collection of essays, the Hungarian writer Gyorgy Konrad writes: "One of my heads is Eastern, the other Western. We live on the Western edges of the East and we are forced always to compare things and appearances. We are born comparatists. We cannot reject either of our sides, hence the paradox in our attitudes. Our specificity is contained in this. In effect, we are never at home. In our permanent abode we are homesick for god knows where. At home, we always feel a bit uneasy".


If...Nato is to remain functional, it cannot suddenly open its doors to anyone at all...The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - and Austria and Slovenia as well - clearly belong to the western sphere of European civilisation. They espouse its values and draw on the same traditions....Moreover, the contiguous and stable Central European belt borders both on the traditionally agitated Balkans and on the great Eurasian area....'

- Vaclav Havel, 'New Democracies for Old Europe', New York Times, 17 October 1993


What we are up against is the sad fact that developments of those earlier ages, not only those of the Turkish domination but of earlier ones as well, had the effect of thrusting into the southeastern reaches of the European continent a salient of non-European civilization that has continued to the present day to preserve many of its non-European characteristics, including some that fit even less with the world of today than they did with the world of eighty years ago... No one...wants or should be expected to occupy the entire distracted Balkan region, to subdue its excited peoples and to hold them in order until they can calm down and begin to look at their problems in a more orderly way. Conceivably, such an occupation may be momentarily helpful .... [but] could only be the most temporary of improvisations.

- George Kennan (key figure in the US policy of containment towards the USSR), The Balkan Crisis: 1913 and 1993


14.25 -- US President Bill Clinton told media yesterday that Europe now had no option but to bring the entire area of South-East Europe into the European Union family. Clinton was speaking in Aachen during a three-day visit to Germany where he became the first American president to win the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for promoting European unity. The goal should be, he said, to debalkanise the Balkans once and for all and that the international community counted on the Serbian opposition for that. "President Milosevic and his policies should not have a future," said Clinton.


Why do so many Westerners shake their heads in laughter and despair at the Balkans? Why are the region's inhabitants seen either as congenitally irrational and bloodthirsty mobs, never happier than when they are slitting the throats of their neighbours, or as incompetent clowns in fanciful uniforms that mysteriously invoke a medieval past? It would be hard to find academics or Balkan specialists who take the view that the collapse of Yugoslavia was a product of ancient hatreds. But this belief is stubbornly held by the Western media and Western policy-makers, including many who have participated or are still participating in the crisis, and whose influence helps to perpetuate the myths.

- Misha Glenny, Only in the Balkans





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