Guest Column by Silvia Pavic
Very often we read or hear the term "Balkans" in the media, usually describing the territory of former Republic of Yugoslavia. They say "Balkan war actions", "Balkan strategic area" even "Balkan nations". This term is mostly used when talking about a political situation or comparing cultures. But do we really know what it means? Sometimes it simply marks the area but more often it carries a negative connotation in words like "balkanization", "balcan", etc. Is it right to use this concept in geographical terms? What's the real meaning of it?
If you ask American geographers what countries they would include in the Balkans you would probably get very different answers. Inspired by history and recent events they would probably define it as "the area or countries in southeastern Europe, which is politically and ethnically diverse and extremely unstable." What countries would they include in their descriptions? Probably the countries of the former Yugoslavia but also Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Hungary… Who knows? There are large differences between authors even between those who work and live in this area. How did it actually begin?
The first time the word Balkan was mentioned was in a letter written by an Italian humanist, writer and diplomat, Buonaccorsi Callimarco for a mountain in northern Bulgaria, in 1490. He took the Turkish name Bal.kan which meant "woody mountain." An English traveler John Morritt introduced this term into the English literature at the end of the 18th century. Very soon different authors adopted the name Balkan to the wider area of the mountain range between the Adriatic and the Black sea, as it was done in Ancient Greek literature. This phenomena culminated with German geographer August Zeune who first used the name "Balkan peninsula" for the area in 1808. So it happened that this area was incorrectly named by the name of only one of the mountain ranges in its territories. During the 19th century this word was used to express the Ottoman presence on the peninsula. It was called "Turkish Europe" as well as "Greek peninsula" or "South Slavic peninsula" according to the ethnical dominance on the territory. At the turn of the century the term also got a political connotation. It described an area of divided and hostile countries, formed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and later Habsuburg Monarchy. Spreading in the 20th century as a geographical term it was also gaining a cultural and sociological connotation. Thus, many geographers wanted to change Zeune's mistake and therefore suggested the term Southeastern Europe or Near East as a neutral, non-political and non-ideological concept. Southeastern Europe for example included all the countries of (today's) former Yugoslavia as well as Romania, Bulgaria and Greece (and also Hungary by some authors).
What we can actually see in practice is that the word "Balkans" gained a large variety of meanings throughout the past. Unfortunately, the late war freshened the term relating it once more to its geographical origin. But, in whole, it's again a more sociological and a political term than a geographical (which was used incorrectly in the first place). As Maria Todorova remarks in her book Imagining the Balkans: "The name is used today within a cultural and political nomenclature, but it is also continually used to denote a concrete geographical and historical reality." At the same time, the terms "balkanization" and "balkanism" became widely accepted and used as expressions for the divided and conflicted areas, but also for bad manners, corrupted government, ineffective institutions, primitivism, etc.
Many authors in the past have been using very different criteria in defining the Balkans. Some used physical definitions but most approaches were political and culturally based. So, geographically speaking, it would be wise to think before we use "the Balkans" when describing the concrete geographical area. Why not use Southeastern Europe, for example? It's certainly more "geographical" than the "Balkans".
Silvia Pavic is a student of geography and history from Croatia. Her interests include writing, web publishing, music, traveling, and spiritual activities. She hopes to visit the United States some day, especially the Pacific Northwest. Growing up in the turbulent times of her country, today she's an eyewitness to the great changes in the region where she lives. She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org