Labeling the [Balkans]

TEXT: Masha Scholl - 27. September 2018

Balkans, Western Balkans or Southeast Europe? Or maybe even European Western Balkan? We asked our experts what name is best for the region that includes Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

“Next time I will ask: “Are you from the Balkans?”

Katarina Tadic, Chevening Scholar at University Bristol, UK

Recently I caught myself asking a girl from the UK with a very Serbo-Croatian name “Are you from the region?”. We both knew to what region I was referring to, unlike her British friend who was slightly confused. Aware of my choice of words,  I started to wonder why I deliberately decided not to name the region, concluding that one alternative was to use the Balkans, a contested term associated with many stereotypes. Or I could have said the Western Balkans, a term that nowadays does not include Croatia, while the third solution, South-Eastern Europe, would have been too broad and imprecise.

This linguistic confusion and disagreement over a seemingly simple thing, i.e., how to refer to our region, is an unfortunate consequence of the political developments of the last thirty years. As a result of the Yugoslav or Balkan wars, as they are often called, the latter became less of a geographical term and more a concept of “Balkanism” – used to denote something as non-European, and therefore less developed. People have become reluctant to use the quickly internalized term for their own country and more willing to apply it to neighboring countries (to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, Balkan is always somewhere else). In parallel, the term Western Balkans, coined by the EU, proved to be of little use, as it is defined as a transition phase in the EU integration process. Once you are in, you cease to be part of the Western Balkans, leading Croatian professor Dejan Jovic to propose the term Restern Balkans, indicating its shrinking nature.

What we need is to reject this idea of the Balkans and to give it a new meaning. Being part of the Balkans and a member of the EU are compatible, not mutually excluding things. The Balkans is part of Europe, it is not “Europe’s other”. This shift in perception - perhaps radical for some, - must happen both inside and outside the Balkans. So next time I will ask “Are you from the Balkans?”.

“It is time to change the image rather than the name”

Sven Dominkovic, Project Manager, Moja Buducnost, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

I have changed my mind about the term “Balkan” while traveling through the region and reflecting on its connotations in Switzerland & Germany.

There is much more that connects us in these countries than what differentiates us. Common history has resulted in common habits, mindsets, values and such unique traditions like the culture of Komšiluk, where neighbors know and care about their neighborhood. The friendliness, hospitality, food, music, dances, and above all, the beautiful landscape that reminds me of some areas in Switzerland or Scotland. Can you imagine Swiss people in Zurich dancing at Balkan Parties to songs called “Disko Partizani” or “No Escape from Balkan”? Guess what? They do and they love it. It is something different, unique and enjoyable – all of which is also associated with “Balkan”. The negative connotation might only be in our heads and it is time to change this image rather than trying to change the name.

My impression is that interest in traveling to the Balkans is on the rise and people see a different picture when visiting the countries, just as Lord Byron did during his Balkan travels (at the beginning of 19th century, in this case in Albania). He wrote of the beauty of its landscapes and inhabitants, stating that “despite the problems that plague this country, there is a wealth of wonder to be discovered and celebrated”. The Balkans should therefore not be renounced or renamed.

“Balkan: the only term that doesn’t separate the countries”

Dejan Donev, assoc. prof. of Ethics, Institute of philosophy, Faculty of philosophy, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Skopje, Macedonia

The Balkan - in a general, political, historical but most of all geographical context - has been the best fit for the region, without being linguistically misused or politically and historically discriminated. The Balkan is probably the only term that has not been used to separate the countries up there (members of EU) from countries down here (countries waiting to become members of EU) as opposed to diminishing terms such as the European Balkans and Southeast Europe.

 “Culturally, this is Balkans”

Rubin Zemon Ph.D. Special Adviser of the Prime Minister for developing of multicultural society, interculturalism and inter-cultural communications, Skopje, Macedonia

Whichever of the proposed terms you use, it will not be a mistake, but also not 100% correct.

Geographically, it is a central area of the Balkan Peninsula and the southeastern part of Europe (it is also very disputable where the geographical and the natural eastern borders of Europe are). Religiously, this area is a border between the orient religions (Orthodox Christianity and Islam) and Catholic Christianity. Politically, this area is not part of EU and is surrounded by EU member states.

In terms of culture and identity, people in this group are accepting of a regional identification as "Balkan people" without any reserve or shame.

“Balkans. Other terms are coinage to serve a purpose”

Mitko Pishtolov, PIU and Public Outreach Coordinator, Education for Employment (E4E@mk), Skopje, Macedonia

The Balkans seems the most appropriate and probably the least misused term to characterize the geographical, political and historic area constituted by the mentioned countries. All other terms had or still have to a certain extent a political connotation, indicating a difference between the countries that have made it and those that are still struggling. The Balkans is also a clear term which is generally understood in a historic and geographic context, while the other terms are more or less evident coinage to serve a specific purpose.

“Balkan: not part of EU, but part of Europe”

Nenad Celarevic, Project manager, PERFORM, Belgrade, Serbia

It is not easy to live your whole life in a region or state that is constantly changing its name. I was born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, I finished high school in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and I got my university diploma in the Republic of Serbia.  When Yugoslavia collapsed in the early nineties, the international community needed a new name for the region. First in use was Southeast Europe. There were attempts suggested by some scholars and journalists to term the region Yugo-sphere or EX- Yugoslav area, but luckily they were unsuccessful.

In the last five years, the Western Balkans has become a common term. It was probably created by the EU bureaucrats (eurocrats) for the six countries, which are still not part of the EU. But to show that we are part of the West, as in the former cold war division, “Western” was added. It is important to mention that East or South Balkan do not exist. 

I believe that the proper name for the region is Balkan, and Balkan is part of Europe. It is not part of the European Union, and we do not know if it is ever going to become one. For European heritage, culture and history, Balkan was - and still is - very important.

“Western Balkans: the least controversial”

Ertan Munoglu, Project Manager, DEMOS, Pristina, Kosovo

The term ‘Balkan’ has developed a negative connotation, thus there is a tendency to move away from its use. ‘Southeastern Europe’ has emerged as an alternative term. However, Southeast Europe goes way beyond the countries in question. The EU, for example, includes Hungary and Ukraine in the Southeast Europe programs. Geographically speaking, the ‘Balkans’ is closer but still wide. It includes Bulgaria and Romania in the east, Slovenia and Croatia in the west. Greece, Turkey and Italy are included or excluded in the region depending on the author and the context.

‘European Western Balkans’ is the most political of all options, for two reasons: i) it sounds as if by all means one wants to show that it belongs to Europe and ii) it wants to distance from negative political connotations of the Balkans.

‘Western Balkans’ seems the closest. The adjective ‘western’ distinguishes the region from the eastern part of the Balkan peninsula. Most other international organizations, such NATO, the World Bank, and the EU refer to the ‘Western Balkans’. Considering that all those countries aspire to become members of the EU and that they accept to be named ‘Western Balkans’ by the EU, this term seems the most acceptable and the least controversial.

“Western Balkans: geographically and contextually correct”

Ariana Qosaj Mustafa, Program Director/Senior Researcher of KIPRED, Pristina, Kosovo

Even though the countries are geographically part of Europe, European Western Balkans emphasizes that Western Balkans is modern, advanced and developed only if associated with Europe. This reference reflects to a certain degree  a post-colonial view of the region. Southeast Europe refers to a region that goes beyond countries currently enlisted in the question. Balkans has a negative connotation associated with a backward and underdeveloped region.

Western Balkans seems more accurate as it is geographically correct but also provides for a contextual understanding of the region taking into account regional commonalities be it political, social or cultural.

Western Balkan without an “s”

Dusan Lj Milenkovic, Westminster Foundation, Belgrade, Serbia

I believe all of the terms could be properly used when we speak about different areas.

South East Europe (SEE) includes all the countries below Hungary and Slovenia surrounded by Adriatic, Black, Aegean and Ioanian seas. Balkan, on the other hand, covers the area below Pannonian and Moesian Danube Limes, as set by the Romans. It largely overlaps with the SEE region.

Western Balkan is the most recent term, used for the countries which are still not in the EU. I believe this term is used correctly, except in cases when it’s used as "Western Balkans", with the addition of "s". This practice is unnecessary and incorrect. There is no plurality of "Balkan" but a plurality of countries in the western part of Balkan.

“Southeast Europe: a label that portrays the region’s location rather than its standing in society”

Dr Gëzim Visoka, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Dublin City University, Ireland

Labels, borders, and regions are political rather than geographical constructs. Traditional references to the region as ‘Balkans’ or ‘Western Balkans’ are charged with ideological and negative connotations. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘the Balkans’ and ‘Balkanization’ have come to be associated with ethnic violence and political fragmentation, which then have been fetishized by the Western states as a derogatory and exclusionary label. As some of the countries in this region now have joined the EU, they suddenly no longer want to be affiliated with the Balkans. Suddenly, the label ‘Western Balkans’ was invented to depict countries of this region who are left outside the European Union and are subject to external interventions and conditionality prior to eventual integration in the EU.

Geographical labels are important for collective identity, cultural dignity, and political standing of countries. Negative labels undermine the image and political confidence of regions. They also permit external intervention, humiliation, and disrespect. Therefore, the most politically-neutral and geographically-correct label for the region is ‘Southeast Europe’. This label portrays region’s geographical location rather than its standing in international society. It promotes sovereign equality among all peoples, and rightly so, demonstrates that although the entire region is not yet a full member of the European Union, it is indisputably an integral part of the continent of Europe.

“Southeast Europe: free of toxic connotations”

Kristijan Fidanovski, M.A. Candidate in East European Studies, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Metro Area, USA

“Balkan” means many different things to different Balkan/non-Balkan/kind-of-Balkan people. But one thing is certain: it’s a dirty word for all of them. It’s not associated with a historical epoch or even a geographical area; it’s associated with misery. The citizens of Tito’s Yugoslavia were called Yugoslav, but their grandchildren today are called Balkan. In English dictionaries, “balkanization” means violent division and is casually used as such by people who haven’t even necessarily heard of the Balkans.

Today we hear the term “Balkans” a lot less often than we hear “Western Balkans”. The Western Balkans is basically meant as a temporary purgatory between hell (the Balkans) and paradise (the West), with membership of the latter being acquired by joining the EU. “Western Balkans” dangerously implies that there is nothing distinctive about the nations we think of as “Balkan”, except for their desire to become Western “when they grow up”. It also implies that EU membership is a magic wand for all their problems. By this logic, Croatia “left” the (Western) Balkans as early as 2013. But did the “Balkans” leave Croatia?

The only meaningful (albeit hardly uncontested) substitute for “Balkan” is “Southeast European”. The exact geographical boundaries of this term are open to interpretation, but at least it’s free of the multiple toxic connotations of the “Balkan-ness”. To paraphrase Maria Todorova, it’s time for the world to learn to talk about Southeast Europe like it does about most other places: without being either proud or ashamed of them.

Kristijan’s full opinion column on the topic

“Let’s go beyond the borders and put the people in the forefront”

Valbona Karakaci, Project Manager, dldp, Tirana, Albania

For a long time, Balkans have been considered as “the other” one, although geographically within the European Family. Thus, there has always been efforts to “add on” a European dimension to the peninsula name, being this either European Western Balkan or Southeast Europe or even Western Balkan.

While different labels took a greater weight depending on the geopolitical discourse, they never lost a common feature: the one of being always in a “transition” and bridging towards a better life for its community and people. I believe that Helvetas works for people and communities, thus without neglecting the importance of geopolitics, it might be more interesting to break down its borders and forget about labels, putting the people in the forefront.

This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Helvetas Mosaic.

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Helvetas Mosaic is a quarterly published by Helvetas Eastern European team for our email subscribers and website visitors. Our articles explore new trends and fresh ideas of international development work in Southeast Europe.

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