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A Brief Intro to the Balkans
Journal Post #26: June 12th 2023, Berat Albania
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I am writing this from a newly renovated apartment overlooking the town of Bitola in North Macedonia. The place is sleek and comfy; it has wooden floors, a fully equipped kitchen, and a big balcony. The apartment is also on the top floor of a truly dilapidated building. The reviews forewarned of this - “beautiful apartment in very old building” - so we shouldn’t have been surprised. And yet, we were.
The elevator is tiny and doesn’t have a door; we got dizzy seeing each floor as we passed them. Multiple floors are not accesible with the elevator so you only see a concrete wall going by, terrifying for a slightly claustrophobic person like me. The apartment below us burned completely about a year ago. The walls of the hallway leading to the apartment are completely black and there still a lingering smell of burnt plastic.
But, in this cozy modern apartment, it’s easy to forget about it all.
The view from the large windows show a town nested between green tall mountains and traversed by a narrow river lined by trees. The town is mostly made of short houses with orange tiled roofs, except for a few tall buildings on the edges - including the one we are staying in - and at least three very visible minarets. There is also a clock tower and a church tower, but both are easy to overlook next to the very tall minarets. The landscape of the town is defined by the mosques.
But, in the two days we have been here we haven’t heard a call to prayer, have seen pork and alcohol being sold everywhere, and have only seen a couple of women wearing a hijab. That is because today Bitola is 90% Eastern Orthodox Christian and most of the mosques are either completely shut down or used as art galleries.
This is just a little window into the Balkan region and its many contrasts. It’s old and new, modern and traditional, Muslim and Christian, and two dozen ethnicities living together in an small area of the world in which borders have been drawn and redrawn many times over history in plain disregard for ethnicities and religion. Some of those borders are still disputed today.
Even the definition of what constitutes the Balkans is fraught, as there is no universal agreement on the region’s component. Is it seven or thirteen countries? No one can say. Regardless, the area is *very* small, about the size of Spain, which makes its history of conflicts - past and present - even more intriguing.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s agree on the broadest definition of the Balkans for now. This includes the geographic peninsula plus a few more countries as noted in the map below:
By mid-September we would have gone to all the countries highlighted in that map except Moldova. Last year we visited Greece (for two months) and Turkey (for almost one month), so we won’t be going back to them in the next few months, but the experiences and learnings are fresh. We will see every other country on a big roadtrip that started about ten days ago in Plovdiv Bulgaria.
We just spent a week in North Macedonia, which I think is a good starting point to get a feel for the complexity of the region. Although peaceful in a day to day context, there is no lack of tension between North Macedonia and basically all its neighbors, and this is a statement you could make for all countries in the Balkans. But to understand why this is the case it’s important to get a glimpse into the history of the region as a whole and three key components of that history: 1) invading empires, 2) external influences, and 3) ethnic and religious conflicts. So, here we go.
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The first human settlement in Europe was here, in modern Serbia and Romania. Obviously lots has happened since then, but what it’s important to understand is that beginning in the 1st century BC nearly all the region was part of the Roman Empire, followed by the Byzantine Empire, and then the Ottoman Empire (for 400 years!), among many other smaller kingdoms, all of which brought their religion, customs, and ethnicities into the mix. This also included large migrating groups from other parts of the region, such as the Slavs (from Central and Eastern Europe) and Bulgars (from Central Asia).
Many of the Balkan countries saw a rise in nationalism and revolutions in the 1800s, when the region was still under Ottoman rule. This rise, coupled with Ottoman decline, led to the Congress of Berlin, a meeting between Europe’s Great Powers and the Ottoman Empire in which the Balkans were “reorganized” to achieve “peace and stabilization”. Meaning, let’s move shit around with almost completely disregard for the people that live there!
By this point the Balkans was a region of many religions - Roman Catholic, Christian Orthodox, Muslim - as well as many ethnicities - Serbs, Slavs, Greeks, Croats, Bosniaks, Turks, and many more. No one was happy with the new land arrangements, which made tensions rise and led to the Balkans Wars of 1912 and 1913, in which the Ottoman Empire lost almost all its holdings in Europe. Then, World War I was ignited in the Balkans when a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand. WWI had immense repercussions to the region, including that borders were again redrawn and the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which became Yugoslavia, was created. Both the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell.
This didn’t qualm conflicts though, and during the years between World Wars many forced migration were carried out between Balkan countries, such as Greeks from Turkey and viceversa, something I wrote about here. WWII was another shit-show, with some Balkan countries supporting Germany (Bulgaria and Romania) and some being invaded by them (Greece and Yugoslavia).
Communism and the Soviet Union came and went, and all of the Balkans were part of that wave except Greece. A book could be written only about these couple of decades - and in fact many have been - but as an incomplete summary you should know that communism didn’t end nationalism, so the fighting over land and the discrimination of ethnic minorities all over the region only intensified with time.
We have finally arrived to recent history! With the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the death of Yugoslavia’s autocrat leader Josip Broz Tito, the two wealthiest republics of the state, Croatia and Slovenia, seceded and the union formally fell in 1992. Side note: After the officially split of Yugoslavia, Montenegro and Serbia formed a reduced state, called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or later simply ‘Serbia and Montenegro’, which didn’t dissolved until 2006 when both countries became independent.
A series of ethnic conflicts followed in the early 90s, better known as the Yugoslav Wars, which officially lasted until 2001. These wars are usually referred to as Europe’s deadliest armed conflict since WWII, and are likely what you associate with the region. The decade-long period was plagued by war crimes including the Bosnian genocide, and resulted in the death of 140,000 people and in a major refugee and humanitarian crisis of millions of displaced people. One of the most horrific details of these wars was that rape was used as an instrument of systematic ethnic cleansing.
International peace efforts to stop the war failed miserably, but finally the conflicts came to an end through a series of land agreements. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which endured the largest losses during the war, was essentially split by ethnic lines and today is still made up of two autonomous entities. The central government is made up of three presidents, each representing one of the major ethnic groups in the country. This is all still quite confusing to me, so I will share more about Bosnian history in a subsequent post, once we are there!
Most major conflicts ended in the mid 90s and borders between countries were set and accepted, except in Kosovo, which saw its deadliest conflict in 1998-1999. Numerous massacres were committed during the Kosovo War and a million refugees fled the region. The war didn’t end until NATO, without formal international approval, bombed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for almost three months until they agreed to withdraw armed forces from Kosovo (NATO peacekeepers are still stationed in Kosovo until this day). The United States officially recognized Kosovo as a country immediately and today about another 100 countries recognize as well, but many still don’t, including China, Russia, Argentina, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Romania, Greece, and India. Serbia continues to claim Kosovo as part of Serbia and just last month a flare up of violence occurred in the northern border. We will visit Kosovo later this month, so more on this then.
Today, the region as a whole is very safe and for the most part peaceful. Many countries in the region are part of the European Union (Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, and Slovenia), and most others are in negotiations to be. But tensions exist mostly everywhere, and it’s all quite complicated and convoluted. As a tourist, you could easily look past all this complex history and the current tensions if you are not paying attention or care to dig below the surface. But, that is not how we travel, and we specifically came to this region because we wanted to learn about it. It’s still too early to share much in terms of opinions, but hopefully this post gives you a bit of an intro into the region. As always, take the info with a grain of salt, it’s all quite complex and each country has its own very unique history.
More next week, thanks for reading!