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Balkanisation

From Macedonia we head northwest, passing through Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, and Montenegro, entering Bosnia and Herzegovina, the third-largest and centre-most of Europe’s seven former Yugoslav republics.

We’re right in the heart of the Balkan peninsula, a region that has given our language everything from cravats to Dalmatians (more on those in a moment). But here is also home to a word to which all the Balkan nations together can stake an etymological claim. Which is somewhat ironic, given what it means.

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Balkanisation is the process by which a country or region fragments into a number of smaller constituent nations. In political contexts, the term is often used somewhat critically or disparagingly, to imply that these smaller constituent units remain mutually hostile or uncooperative, even after independence. The word has more recently gained a looser, more figurative sense, to mean merely ‘to divide’ or ‘split’.

It’s tempting to think that Balkanisation must be a relatively modern invention, referring to what feels like a relatively modern phenomenon. After all, it was only as recently as 1991 that the former Republic of Yugoslavia began to break up into the beguiling patchwork of nations that comprise the Balkan peninsula today. But so extraordinary is the Balkan region’s history that the term actually dates back to the early twentieth century. ‘How long the present Balkanisation of Europe is to continue,’ announced Edward H. Bradford, dean of Harvard Medical School, in an address to the American College of Surgeons, ‘and how much chaos is to result no one can tell.’ Incredibly, Bradford delivered his address on 16 November 1914.

So what was occurring at that time to make Bradford’s balkanisation worth mentioning?

By the second half of the 1800s, much of the Balkan peninsula was under the control of either the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empire. As these two great superpowers began to crumble towards the end of the century, the swathe of nations and peoples over which they had dominion began to grow ever more restless. Before long, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania had all gained some level of independence or autonomy, and the events of the First World War served only to complicate things further. Both great empires collapsed after the war, leading to the formation of several more new nations: Turkey, and an independent Austria and Hungary among them, as well as a newly united Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

It was against this backdrop of international tension and fragmentation that the word balkanisation was first coined in the early 1900s. But, as we now know, the process was by no means over.

Yugoslavia endured as a kingdom until war again broke out in 1939. Invaded and partitioned by the Axis powers during the Second World War, Yugoslavia became a republic in 1944. But the country struggled to maintain unity in the tumultuous decades that followed, until finally, in the early 1990s, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia all announced their independence; what remained of the former

Yugoslav Republic collapsed the following year.

Since then, the process has continued: Serbia and Montenegro, initially united as a single federation in 1992, went their separate ways in 2006. And, although currently only partially recognised on the international stage, the Republic of Kosovo, barely half the size of Wales, declared its independence from Serbia two years later. Whether this process will continue in the twenty-first century remains to be seen.

We’re not quite finished with the Balkans. When England reached the semi-finals of the football World Cup in 2018, it marked the first time the team had reached such an advanced stage for twenty-eight years. The achievement sparked an online meme listing several seemingly ubiquitous things that simply did not exist back in 1990: Facemy blog, Amazon, eBay, and YouTube all made the list, as did iPhones, iPods, Wikipedia and Google. One thing the list failed to mention, however, was England’s opponent, Croatia. Twenty-eight years earlier it was still one of the constituent nations of Yugoslavia, and was yet to balkanise its way into independence. The last time England had reached the semi-finals, the Republic of Croatia simply did not exist.

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