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One of the most recurrent metaphors used to discuss conflict is 'the Balkan'. A designation for the mountain range that cuts across the territory of present-day Bulgaria, the term 'Balkan' has also been applied to a diverse geopolitical region and a range of cultural and political phenomena. The earliest recorded mention of the word, which according to Todorova was in 1490, referred to what had been previously known as the Haemus mountain range in the Rumeli provinces of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, when Great Power wrangling about the fate of 'the sick man of Europe' peaked, the geographical designation had accrued a range of derogatory connotations. The term appears to have transcended its original meaning and become a conceptual rather than a geographic referent.

In his discussion of the origins and evolution of what he calls 'the Balkan myth', Norris argues that the use of 'Balkan' as a shorthand for political volatility, ethnic hostility and sectarianism is a Western invention. 'The Balkan' in this sense has been deployed not so much to describe the different communities and states in the peninsula, but rather to produce a certain idea of 'Europe' as progressive and civilised. Along these lines, Wolff concludes that Europe's emergence into its self-identity during the Enlightenment depended on a process of internal fracturing, which pitted one, desirable, part of Europe ('Europe proper') against another, much less desirable periphery ('Eastern/Oriental Europe'). In order to perceive the former as enlightened and civilised it was necessary to affirm its distance from the latter, seen as backward, irrational and barbarian. As a result, the physical-geographical proximity of the Balkans to Europe was neutralised by creating a cultural-symbolical distance between 'Europe' and 'the Balkan', and producing what Bjelic refers to as a kind of Balkan 'discourse-geography'. This discourse-geography offers simplistic representations of the region and its peoples whilst perpetuating the fallacious binary of a homogeneous 'Europe' vs. an equally uniform 'non-Europe'.

The process of metaphoricising the Balkans into an internal 'other' against which a self-congratulatory image of Europe was constructed peaked in the first decades of the twentieth century when the term 'balkanisation' was coined in the aftermath of the First World War. Early twentieth-century usage of 'balkanisation' referred retrospectively to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire on the peninsula, which had taken place a few decades earlier. Carrying all the negative connotations of political upheaval (instability, lawlessness and fragmentation), the term was applied to the post-First World War disintegration of two of Europe's Christian empires — the Austro-Hungarian and Romanov ones — as an equivalent to the messy dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. However, scholars such as Todorova and Neuberger claim that the derogatory meaning ascribed retrospectively to 'balkanisation' in the inter-war period failed to acknowledge that the Balkan nations had been a sort of 'political vanguard' for the revised power dynamics on the continent during the last days of empire. In this sense, the connotations of 'balkanisation' reflected not so much a civilisational gap between Europe and its internal 'other', but rather a projection of conservative Europe's anxieties about the ruptures in the political status-quo and the revised power dynamic on the continent.

'Balkanisation' was invoked again at the end of the twentieth century, when it was applied to the disintegration of a communist rather than an imperial entity. This post-communist version of 'balkanisation' constructed a causal link between one kind of 'otherness' (ideologically intolerant and backward communism) with an earlier, already familiar one (ethnically intolerant and backward semi-Orientalism). Some interpreted the newer version of 'balkanisation' as a return of repressed nationalist sentiments and ethnic tensions dormant since the Second World War, and even pathologised the region as riven by what Kaplan termed 'ancient ethnic hatreds'. Others, such as Slavoj Žižek, have contested the implicit binary between 'Europe' and 'the Balkan', suggesting that the co-called 'balkanisation' that unfolded in the 1990s in the Western Balkans was a repetition of a familiar, if forgotten, nation-state building scenario that had already taken place in Europe and was symptomatic of the inherent tensions and violence of Western capitalism. This recent version of 'balkanisation' seems to perpetuate the century-long tradition of constructing 'the Balkan' as Europe's internal other and a site onto which European anxieties about its essence and fate are projected. In the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain, however, the term glossed over the emergence of new forms of exclusion in a Europe of global capitalism, neoliberal hegemony, and eroded social welfare.

But recent examples from media and critical discourse suggest that the hitherto assumed link between 'the Balkan' and 'Europe' is severed in other ways too. For one, 'balkanisation' as a term denoting localised geopolitical developments has been deterritorialised, with the term transcending its geographical moorings in (south-eastern) Europe as well as its initial connotation of backwardness, irrationality, and ethnic strife to stand for anything anywhere: from socio-political destabilisation to the entrenchment of economic inequalities and escalating ethnic, gender and sexual prejudice. Early supporters of pan-Africanism, for example, saw in the seemingly benign policies and liberal attitudes of the West towards the young Balkan states at the turn of the century a pernicious offshoot of imperialism since the newfound states ended up being more economically and politically dependent on the Great Powers. This scenario was likely to threaten the liberatory potential of the anti-colonial struggles on the African continent by supplanting one form of dependence (colonial) with another (neo-colonial) one. These mid-century postcolonial interpretations of 'balkanisation' as the pernicious underside of decolonisation were subsequently invoked by Nelson Mandela, who referred to the ongoing policies of racialisation and racial segregation in South Africa as internal 'balkanisation'. The threat he perceived was not so much the corruption of anti-colonial struggles into fratricidal violence instigated from the outside, but rather the entrenchment of prejudice and racialised identity politics into the everyday social, economic and political practices of South Africa. At the other end of the political spectrum, there has been right-wing scaremongering about the alleged 'balkanising' threat posed by ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, gay rights activists, trade unions and feminists.

The ongoing government-debt crisis across Europe has raised the spectre of 'the Balkan' once again, especially in relation to the perception that Greece has destabilised the euro. The Chicago Tribune attributed the origins of Greece's financial and political crisis to a heavy 'Balkan inheritance', while The Guardian assessed the outcome of the 2012 elections as a refusal to 'lurch back to a Balkan past'. A country not traditionally deemed 'Balkan' due to a prevalent sentiment of philhellenism and European civilisational claims, Greece is shown as dangerously teetering over the edge of 'Europe' and into 'the Balkan' because of inadequate public funds management, inefficient administration, and a corrupt political class threatening to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy and the smooth functioning of the global market. There is a clear shift in the connotations of the term since the 1990s: the latest versions of 'the Balkan' have less to do with civilisational backwardness defined in ethnic terms and more to do with social tensions emerging from state deregulation, economic liberalisation and corporate access to personal data. Thus, in 2009 The Financial Times qualified EU enlargement in the West of the Balkan peninsula as a process of 'de-balkanisation' of the Balkans, while ongoing debates about the possible 'balkanisation of Britain' in view of the 2014 referendum on Scotland's independence are conducted with reference to the control over natural resources and debt management, access to EU markets and the national currency (The Economist).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this brief overview of the semantic journey of 'the Balkan' as a trope is the possibility of reclaiming some positive connotations of a term that originated in discourses of othering and conflict. For instance, some of the opinions presented in The Economist's article on Scottish independence imply that the impending 'balkanisation of Britain' needn't be framed only in terms of a violent secession, but also in terms of a more peaceful 'divorce' such as that one between Serbia and Montenegro. Likewise, The Guardian's recent invocation of 'a Balkanised internet' does not foreground fragmentation and rivalry as the dominant connotations of 'the Balkan', but instead draws attention to the possibility of separate internet zones as a mode of resistance to government agencies' and corporations' increasing encroachments on internet users' privacy.


The picture accompanying this article is by Matthew White, and depicts his idea of an alternative, Balkanised United States. Further information is available here.


Recommended reading

The following texts offer further insight into ideas of the 'Balkan':

Bakić-Hayden, Milica and Robert M. Hayden. 1992. 'Orientalist Variations on the Theme "Balkans": Symbolic Geography on Recent Yugoslav Cultural Politics'. Slavic Review 51.1: 1-15.

Bjelić, Dušan I. and Obrad Savić. 2005. Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hammond, Andrew. 2007. The Debatable Lands: British and American Representations of the Balkans. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Kaplan, Robert. 1994. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History. New York: Vintage.

Neuberger, Benyamin. 1976. 'The African Concept of Balkanisation'. The Journal of Modern African Studies 14.3: 523-529.

Norris, David. 1999. In the Wake of the Balkan Myth: Questions of Identity and Modernity. New York: St Martin's.

Phillips, Kevin. 1978. 'The Balkanization of America: As Loyalties Narrow, Society Itself Dissolves'. Harper's Magazine May: 37-47.

Todorova, Maria. 1997. Imagining the Balkans. Oxford: OUP.

Wolff, Larry. 1994. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1993. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

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