The Balkans, strictly speaking, are a chain of mountains that lend their name to a peninsula in southeastern Europe. Those of a certain age might remember these lands were the former Yugoslavia, a communist federation that dissolved soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. In its wake came the newly independent Balkan nations of Albania, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and its offshoot, Kosovo, which it has yet to recognize, and Slovenia.
Of course, there were some bumps during this shakeout because, when it comes to the Balkans, ancient grudges and grievances are always just beneath the surface. Blood feuds and mistrust along religious and ethnic lines in the Balkans often go back centuries. In fact, the turbulent history here is so famous it’s given us a catchword for a type of political fracturing: Balkanization. It’s a kind of shorthand for describing the process of a large entity fragmenting, sometimes violently, into smaller, more hostile and less cooperative ones, usually along the lines of tribal, ethnic and religious identity.
Yugoslavia was born in the early part of the 20th century and died near the century’s end. It was patched together at the end of WWI from the remains of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires. After WWII, Joseph Broz Tito, a communist partisan, emerged as the leader of Yugoslavia and aligned it with the Soviet Union. Tito kept the lid on the underlying ethnic and religious tensions in the Yugoslav federation for almost a half century while, at the same time, cautiously trying to stake out a ‘third way’ between east and west in the Cold War.
Tito died in 1980 and, when communism fell a decade later, so did the unified Yugoslavia he’d stewarded. The subsequent wars of the 1990s revealed the deep divisions and nationalist sentiments Tito’s Yugoslavia had kept contained. Throughout the course of those wars, news outlets struggled to provide much context, often opting instead for easy to digest narratives like ‘Muslims versus Orthodox Christians’ and ‘Serbs versus Bosnians.’ While both narratives had a whiff of truth about them, they were only part of the story. When peace finally returned to the region in the mid-1990s, international interest waned.
That began to change as the newly independent nations of the Balkans entered the 21st century with rebuilt economies and infrastructure. It didn’t take long for a new generation of travelers to discover the region’s charm. Today, people the world over come to experience the Balkans’ roster of wonders, sometimes overwhelming them as is the case in Dubrovnik in Croatia, where a taxi driver told me it takes two hours for a round trip to the airport in high season (fans of of HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ have swamped sites around Dubrovnik where scenes from the series were filmed).
On a recent visit to the Balkans I too found myself dazzled and even a bit surprised by the range of natural beauty and historic wonders in the region. That’s because, as a kid, television bombarded me with reports and images that portrayed communist bloc nations as endlessly dreary places, icy gray and barren, with hungry people freezing in boxy socialist architecture. And while that may have been partially true in the northern reaches of Soviet bloc, in places like Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, it was anything but in the Balkans.
The scenery was so spectacular that I often had to remind myself that thiswas the former Yugoslavia. Whether it was the dazzling blue-turquoise waters of the Adriatic along the sun-drenched coasts of Croatia and Montenegro, or the ancient streets and stone buildings of fortress cities like Dubrovnik, Split and Sibenik, or the towering Dinaric Alps with their karst waterfalls and lush green inland valleys, along with the islands, vineyards, olive groves and ancient Roman ruins that seemed to pop up everywhere, the Balkans were clearly more Mediterranean than Minsk.
Geography is responsible for the Balkans’ abundant scenic beauty as well as its turbulent history. Located in the sweet spot of southeastern Europe where the mountains meet the Mediterranean, the Balkans have long been one of history’s great crossroads, the place where Europe opens into Asia and the Middle East. Agriculture first came to Europe through the Balkans around 6500 B.C. from the Middle East, and over the centuries influences from Asia, the Slavic world and Islam all became part of the mix here.
Empires came and went as well. For the Romans this was the republic of Dalmatia. In the Late Middle Ages, the Republic of Venice with their Roman Catholicism reigned over the Adriatic regions, namely Croatia and Slovenia. Further inland, the Ottoman Turks brought Islam to Bosnia-Hercegovina and a good part of Albania. Further east, ethnic Serbs clung to the Orthodox Christianity that ran from Greece to Russia.
Not surprisingly, the history of those empires coincide with the fault lines of culture and religion that have long defined loyalties in the Balkans and are still seen today: Catholicism in Croatia and the northern Adriatic, Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina and much of Albania, and Orthodox Christianity in Serbia and Montenegro.
And yet, I found the Balkans of the 21st century to be no more or no less secular than Europe as a whole. Sure, there are mosques and minarets in Bosnia-Hercegovina along with the call to prayers by the muezzin. But I saw little in the way of religious fervor. In fact, throughout most of the Balkans it would appear that the faithful are getting grayer and sparser.
Even so, there were still the occasional hints of animus and mistrust bubbling up from beneath the surface. Like the young man I met on the island of Vis in Croatia who spoke about the tensions at football matches between the various Balkan nations that would sometimes erupt in violence. He explained it as a matter of ‘they hate us so we hate them’. When I pushed him on why they hated each other, he dismissed it as ‘just the way it is.’
Kotor Bay, Montenegro
In Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, I overheard a young tour guide telling a group of tourists that Franjo Tudman, the Croatian president during the Balkan wars, had been the ‘aggressor’. In Croatia it was the opposite, of course. Wherever I found a war memorial or exhibition about the wars, the finger of blame pointed squarely at the Bosnians Serbs and their ‘aggression’. And, in Montenegro, I caught glimpses of a deep-seated disdain for the Ottoman Turks who the Montenegrins had bitterly resisted for centuries. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was more of a ‘straw man’, a stand-in, really, for a more generalized suspicion of Islam and Muslims.