Balkanization of Eastern Europe (Again)

November 3, 1989

Report Outline
Special Focus


Once known as “the powder keg of Europe,” the Balkan region is living up to its historical reputation as a breeding ground for strife. Although the Balkans have been under Soviet domination since the end of World War II, the present tension and turmoil have little to do with East-West conflict. Rather, they are rooted in centuries-old grievances and ethnic roots. As Soviet control is loosened in Eastern Europe, those ancient ethnic divisions are resurfacing.

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In the Gorbachev era, the half-forgotten word “Balkans” has returned to the geopolitical lexicon with all of its traditional connotations intact: that of a poor and backward land in southeastern Europe, fragmented (“balkanized”) by mountain ranges, political intrigue, diverse languages, religions, folkways and, above all, by long, bitter clan memories. Four decades of Soviet control suppressed the grudges and grievances the diverse Balkan peoples hold for their neighbors, but it did not erase them. The grudges are too old, and the ethnic ties are too strong. Now, as Soviet control is loosened in Eastern Europe, those old ethnic feuds and rivalries are flaring up in the Balkans, threatening the political stability of that region just as it reaches for a measure of self-rule.

Some of the enmities now resurfacing are ancient, rooted in the division of Christianity between Rome and Byzantium, and in four centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule that left pockets of Islam in southeastern Europe. The mass departure of ethnic Turks (most of them Moslems) from Bulgaria earlier this year, for example, can be traced to leftover hatreds from the Ottoman era. More than 300,000 crossed the border into Turkey, telling of a coercive and sometimes violent Bulgarian campaign to erase their religious and ethnic identity. Islam also figures in recurring disorders in Kosovo, a Yugoslav province in the heart of medieval Serbia, where the Serbian Orthodox Church long held sway. Today Kosovo is populated largely by Moslems of Albanian descent who clamor for autonomy. Serbs, the biggest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, retain control of the province by governing it directly from Belgrade.

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