The Geopolitics Of South-East Europe And Importance Of The Regional Geostrategic Position (I)

The geopolitical issue of South-East Europe became of very importance for the scholars, policymakers, and researchers with the question of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire as one of the most crucial features of the beginning of the 20th century in European history. A graduate collapsing of the one-time great empire was accelerated and followed by competition and struggling by both, the European Great Powers and the Balkan national states, upon the territorial inheritance of it. While the European Great Powers have the aim to obtain the new spheres of political-economic influence in South-East Europe, followed by the task to establish a new balance of power in the continent, a total collapse of the Ottoman state was seen by small Balkan nations as the unique historical opportunity to enlarge the territories of their national-states by unification of all ethnolinguistic compatriots from the Ottoman Empire with the motherland. A creation of a single national state, composed by all ethnographic and historic “national” lands, was in the eyes of the leading Balkan politicians as a final stage of national awakening, revival and liberation of their nations which started at the turn of the 19th century on the ideological basis of the German romanticist nationalism expressed in a formula: “One Language-One Nation-One State”.[i]

Both the geopolitical and the geostrategic advantages of nation-state enlargement at the expanse of the Ottoman Empire’s territory were tremendously significant besides the wish for the national unification as one of the main driving forces of the Balkan nationalism at the turn of the 20th century. Especially the Kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria were preoccupied with the idea to be “the biggest” in the region as the precondition to control the Balkan affairs in the future. On other hands, taking into consideration the geopolitical and the geostrategic importance of South-East Europe, each member of the European Great Powers’ orchestra sought to obtain its own predominant influence in the region by fostering territorial aspirations of its Balkan favorite-nation(s). At the same time, a part of the Balkan policy of each European Great Power was to obviate other members of the orchestra to dominate over South-East Europe. The usual mean to realize this second task was to oppose territorial claims of those Balkan nations who were under the protection of antagonist political camp. At such a way, the small Balkan nations were mainly the puppets in the hands of their European protectors. In other words, the success of the national struggle of the Balkan states depended primarily on the political strength and diplomatic skills of their European patrons.

South-East Europe map
South-East Europe

The creation of and fight for independent nation-states at the Balkans from 1804 till 1913 had two dimensions:

  1. The national struggle to create an independent and united national state organization.
  2. The rivalry between the European Great Powers over the domination upon South-East Europe.

The geostrategic position of the Balkan nations was one of the most incisive reasons for the members of the European Great Powers to support or to oppose an idea of the existence of their smaller or bigger nation-states as it was, for instance, the case of independent Albania announced on November 28th, 1912.[ii] A real magnitude of this dilemma can be understood only in the context of the geopolitical and the geostrategic significance of South-East Europe as a region.

A usual, but more populist, description of South-East Europe (or the Balkans) is a “bridge or crossroads between Europe and Asia”, a “mixing point or melting pot of races”, a “powder room or keg of Europe” or the “battlefield of Europe”.[iii] However, one of the most important features of the region is the melting pot of cultures and civilizations.[iv]

The geophysics and culture

The Balkan Peninsula is bordered by six seas at its three sides: by the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea on the west, by the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Crete on the south and by the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea on the east. The fourth side of the Peninsula, the north one, from the geographical point of view has the border on the River Danube. If the factors of historical and cultural developments have to be taken into consideration, then the Balkan (i.e., South-East Europe’s) northern borders are on the Rivers Prut, Ipoly/Ipel and Szamos (the last two in Hungary). Practically, the first option (Balkans) refers to geography while the second (South-East Europe) refers to the historical and cultural linkage and influences. Correctly speaking, the second option refers to the region of Europe under which should be considered the Balkan Peninsula in the pure geographical terms enlarged by the Romanian and Hungarian lands which are historically and culturally closely linked to the both: the territories of East-Central Europe[v] and the Balkans.[vi]

A term Balkans most probably has a Turkish root with the means of a mountain or a mountain chain. For sure, the mountains are the most specific characteristic of the region. Favorable natural conditions of the peninsula attracted throughout the history many different invaders who created multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies and civilizations in this part of Europe. The historical significance of the region enormously increased in the eyes of West European civilization from the time of the Ottoman conquest of the biggest part of South-East Europe (1354–1541) when this portion of the Old Continent was customarily marked as the lands between Europe, Turkey, and Russia. Due to the Ottoman lordship upon the region (till 1913), which significantly changed its image (in the points of customs, culture, ethnography, human behavior, economic development, style of everyday life, appearance of urban settlement, cuisine, music, etc.) many Western authors, especially travelers, considered the Balkans as a part of the Orient or by virtue of geographical remoteness as a part of the Near East. L. S. Stavrianos, a professor of history at Northwestern University (the USA), is quite right to explain heterogeneity of the regional historical and cultural developments essentially by peninsula’s intermediate location between Central and East Europe on one hand and Asia Minor and the Levant on the other.[vii]

Ottoman Empire mapSouth-East Europe culturally and historically is an integral part of the European civilization, influenced throughout the centuries by East Mediterranean, Central, West, and East European cultural features. Being at the crossroads of three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe), the Balkans is taken into account as the region of extraordinary geopolitical and geostrategic importance even since the early days of the Antique. The regional geopolitical and geostrategic significance had a crucial impact on its inter-cultural development, mixture, and characteristics. While in physiographic viewpoint the Pyrenees and the Alps separate the Iberian and the Appenninian Peninsulas from the rest of Europe, the Balkan Peninsula is, in contrast, opened to it. The River Danube is more linking than separating this part of Europe with the “outside world” especially with the region of Central Europe. Geographers are willing to see the northern border of the Balkans on the River Danube, but such attitude is not reasonable for historians as it excludes the Trans-Danubian territories of Romania as well as the Sub-Carpathian region and the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld).[viii]

The seas around the Balkans, likewise the River Danube, became a principal road to the neighborhood. For example, Straight of Otranto (50 miles long) was the closest link between the Balkan and West European civilization and from this point of view, East Italy and the territories of Dalmatia, Montenegro, Albania, Epirus, and Peloponnesus played the role of a bridge which is connecting West Europe with South-East Europe. As a result, Dalmatian and Montenegrin littoral urban settlements, for instance, throughout the history accepted West Adriatic Italian style of life, architecture, municipal and social organization, culture and structure of an economy. It is visible particularly at the Adriatic islands which were in the position of bridging two peninsulas and their cultures – the Balkans and the Appeninians. Probably, the Adriatic islands, considerably influenced by both sides – Italian and Balkan culture and civilization, are the best historical example of the phenomena: the Balkan melting pot of civilizations. The Aegean islands followed by Crete and Cyprus were natural footsteps between the Balkans on one hand and Egypt and Palestine on another. For the Venetian six centuries-long trade links (from 1204 to 1797) between Italy and the Middle East, the Aegean islands, Crete (Candia under the Venetian rule), Rhodes, and Cyprus were of the vital importance for the existence of the Republic of St. Marco. Even today there are numerous remains and examples of the Venetian material and spiritual culture and civilization in these islands that are a constituent element of an inter-cultural feature of the Balkan and East Mediterranean civilizations. Over the centuries they were occupied by the Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Knights of St. John, Venice, Ottomans, Italians, and Germans until their ultimate unification with Greece. Nonetheless, thanks to its geophysical characteristics, there was no natural center of the Balkan Peninsula where about a great political unity (state) could be formed.[ix]

The crossroads and the “division lines”

An extraordinary historical earmark of the Balkans was the fact that throughout the peninsula ran several political and cultural “division lines” and boundaries as, for instance, between the Latin and the Greek language, East and West Roman Empire, the Byzantine and the Frankish Empire, the Ottoman and the Habsburg lands, the Islam and the Christianity, the Christian Orthodoxy and the Christian Catholicism, and recently between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (the NATO) and the Warsaw Pact (from 1955 to 1991).

Cold war military alliancesThe most remarkable examples of living “between division lines” are the Romanians and the Serbs. Being decisively influenced in the Middle Ages by the Byzantine culture and civilization, both of them accepted the Byzantine civilization and the Christian Orthodoxy. However, in the course of following centuries under peculiar historical development of the region and political living conditions, one part of ethnic Romanians and the Serbs became members either of the Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church (under the Pope’s supremacy)[x] or the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, on March 27th, 1697 the union of a part of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Transylvania (a part of historic Kingdom of Hungary) with the Roman Catholic Church was signed, resulting in the creation of the Greek-Catholic or the Uniate Church.[xi] The church union with Rome, based on four points of the Union of Florence of 1439, recognized the authority of the Pope, in return receiving recognition of the equality of the Romanian clergy with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly to the Romanians in Transylvania, part of the Serbs settled on the territory of the Habsburg Monarchy (Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Istria, South Hungary) from the mid-16th century converted themselves into the Greek-Catholics and later into the Roman-Catholics. All of them in the 20th century became Croats. Thus, for the matter of illustration, the Serbs who came to live in the Žumberak area (on the very border between Croatia and Slovenia) in the 16th century were the Orthodox believers while in the next century majority of them accepted the Union and finally in the 18th century declared themselves as members of the Roman Catholic Church and today as the Croats. Till the beginning of the 18th century, the national alphabet of the Romanians was and the Cyrillic one while in the subsequent decades it was replaced by the Latin script that is used up to our days by all Romanians. As a result of the fact that throughout the centuries the Serbian nation was influenced by the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Italian and Central European culture, living five centuries (from the 15th to the 20th) on the territories of the Republic of Venice, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, contemporary Serbs are using in every-day life a quite equally Cyrillic and Latin scripts, while official national alphabet is only Cyrillic. In addition, the Serbian nationhood is split in a religious point of view into East Orthodox, the Muslim and the Roman Catholic believers, while usual national identity mark created by the foreigners is only East Orthodoxy and the Cyrillic script.[xii]

Three thousand years of the Balkan history that was being developed on the crossroads and meeting ground of civilizations resulted in two most important outcomes: 1) The presence of a great number of ethnic minorities; and 2) The existence of numerous different religions and their churches. The present-day Balkan ethnic minorities with their peculiar cultures are distributed in the ensuing way. In Romania, the biggest ethnic minority is Hungarian living in Transylvania, followed by the Serbs in Banat and the Germans in Transylvania. The Macedonian ethnic minority is not officially recognized in Bulgaria as well as in Greece, while a majority of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks suffered forced assimilation from 1984 to 1989 and many of them finally emigrated to Turkey in 1989.[xiii] In Greece, the biggest ethnic minority are the Albanians, settled mainly in Epirus, while the biggest ethnic minority in Albania are the Greeks followed by the Serbs and the Montenegrins. The most number of the Balkan ethnic minorities are living in Serbia and Montenegro: the Albanians, the Bulgarians, the Vlahs, the Romanians, the Hungarians, the Ukrainians, the Gypsies (the Roma), the Croats, the Slovaks, and others. Croatia has the Italian, the Serbian and the Hungarian minorities, while in Macedonia the biggest ethnic minority are the Albanians, followed by the Turks, the Muslims, the Gypsies, and the Serbs.[xiv] Finally, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the biggest minorities are the Czechs, the Poles, and the Montenegrins.[xv]

Europe religion map
Europe religion map

Likewise the ethnic composition of the Balkans, its distribution of religions is very complex too. In present-day Albania there are three biggest denominations: Islam (confessed by 70% of the population), the Roman Catholic (confessed by 10% of Albanians) and the Eastern Orthodox (confessed by 20% of Albania’s inhabitants). Such division is a direct consequence of Albania’s geopolitical position and the course of historical development. For example, Albania’s Orthodox population is located in the southern part of the country where the Greek-Byzantine influences were dominant, while North Albania, as open to the Adriatic Sea and Italy, was for the centuries mainly under the influence of the Roman Catholicism. The presence of a great number of the Muslims is a direct outcome of the Ottoman lordship in Albania (1471–1912). An overwhelming majority of Bulgaria is of East Orthodox faith, while there are 800.000 Muslim Turks, 55.000 Roman Catholics and 15.000 Greek-Catholics (the Uniates) as well. In addition, Bulgaria’s Muslims of the Slavic (Bulgarian) ethnic origin, the Pomaks, do not feel as the Bulgarians and have a closer affinity to the Turks due to a shared religion.

Similarly to the citizens of Bulgaria, a significant majority of Greece’s population is of East Orthodox Church. At the same time, in the mid-1970s there were 120.000 Muslims (in West Thrace), 43.000 Roman Catholics, 3.000 Greek-Catholics and even 640 Armenian-Catholics.[xvi] On the territory of the former Yugoslavia, there are three major religions: the Roman Catholic (in the western part), the Eastern Orthodox (in the eastern part) and the Muslim (in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo-Metochia and Sanjak (Raška)). In 1990, there were 35 religious communities in Yugoslavia. According to the census of 1953, there was 41.4% the Orthodox population, 31.8% the Catholics, 12.3% the Muslims, and 12.5% non-believers in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (the SFRY).[xvii] Similarly to Albania’s case, such division is a direct product of Yugoslavia’s geopolitical position and different historical, cultural and religious influences on its territory.

A symbiosis between religion and nation is quite visible in this part of Europe. The proper linkage between religious and ethnic identity among the Balkan peoples, especially in ethnically, culturally and religiously mixed areas can be seen from the fact that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been a self-conscious contributor to the development of a national ideology among the Serbs, but particularly among those from Kosovo-Metochia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.[xviii] The territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, situated literally on the crossroads of different cultures and civilizations, became in the 1990s a most referring example of meeting ground of divergent religions, nations, cultures, habits, and civilizations in the Balkans. The linkage between religious and ethnic identity is crucial for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbian Orthodox Church, the Croatian Catholic Church, and the Bosnian Muslim Community were a defining factor in the process of ethnic differentiation, perhaps even the most important factor of the process. The religion became a badge of identity and guardian of traditions for the Croats, the Serbs, and the Muslims from Bosnia-Herzegovina (the Bosniaks), as well as for other peoples in the region, but not for the Albanians, who are the most important exception from this phenomena. This was particularly important for the preservation of identity and culture as various foreign empires dominated the region.[xix] In fact, the simultaneous oppression of both religion and nation tended to solidify the connection between the church and the nation as well as religious and ethnic identity.[xx] Surely, quite complex Balkan ethnic and religious composition is a pivotal cause for the existence of its different cultures, but also and for ethnic conflicts which are very often in this part of Europe. The Balkan Peninsula is at the same time both: the meeting ground of civilizations and the powder room of Europe.

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

To be continued


[i] The language-criteria as the crucial factor of national determination was established by the German romanticist from the end of the 18th century – Herder, who understood the linguistic borders as the national borders. Herder’s model of “linguistic nationalism” was further ideologically developed at the beginning of the 19th century especially by the Germans Humboldt and Fichte. It was Fichte who put on the paper the most influential interpretation of the relationship between the language and the national appertaining by writing his famous Reden an die deutsche Nation in 1808. According to him, only the Germans succeeded to preserve original (ursprünglich) Teutonic language in its purest form. It was the reason for Fichte to claim that only the nation who conserved the old Teutonic language has the right to call itself as the Germans, i.e. the Teutons. Fichte further claimed that the power and greatness of the Germans were based exactly on the fact that only they spoke the original „national“ language. Fichte concluded that the language influences the people’s identity much stronger than the people influence the language-shaping [Fichte G. J., Reden an die deutsche Nation, Berlin, 1808, 44]. The practical value of this work was the fact that Fichte, „an ideological creator of the German linguistic nationalism“, urged the German national-political unification taking into consideration the most decisive national determinator – the language. One of the oldest examples of the language-nation relationship was pointed out in the book [Mielcke C., Litauisch-Deutsches und Deutsch-Litauisches Wörter-Buch, Königsberg, 1800].

[ii] Петер Бартл, Албанци од средњег века до данас, Београд: CLIO, 2001, 139.

[iii] Castellan G., History of the Balkans: From Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, New York:  Colombia University Press, East European Monographs, Boulder, 1992, 1.

[iv] About the problem of the sociogenesis of the concepts of “civilization” and “culture”, see in [Elias N., The Civilizing Process. Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, Cornwall, 2000, 3–45].

[v] About the concept of Central Europe from a historical perspective, see in [Magocsi R. P., Historical Atlas of Central Europe. Revised and Expanded Edition, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002].

[vi] An option that the Romanian and Hungarian lands belong to the Balkans is advocated, for instance, by The National Geographic Society which printed Supplement “The Balkans” in February 2000’s issue of its Magazine. Further, according to Gazetter. Atlas of Eastern Europe the whole area from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea belongs to East Europe. Poulton Hugh is sure that Hungary and Romania do not belong to the Balkans [Poulton H., The Balkans. Minorities and States in Conflict, London: Minority Rights Publications, 1994, 12]. Finally, the authors of the famous Westermann Großer Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, published annually, are not quite sure where are the exact historical northern borders of the Balkans.    

[vii] Stavrianos L. S., The Balkans since 1453, New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1958, 1–33.

[viii] For example, close historical, economic, cultural and political connections between the Balkans, Transdanubia, and a Great Hungarian Plain are indicated in many places in the book [Kontler L., Millenium in Central Europe. A History of Hungary, Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House, 1999]. As a matter of example, about confessional relations and influences between the Central European Hungary and the Balkan Byzantine Empire, see in [Moravcsik Gy., “The Role of the Byzantine Church in Medieval Hungary”, The American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. VI, № 18019, 1947, 134–151].   

[ix] About the relations of the Balkan geophysical conditions and the creation of the Balkan states, see in [Cvijić J., La Péninsule Balkanique, Paris, 1918].

[x] The Uniates or Greek Catholics were former Christian Orthodox who accepted the church union with the Vatican but continued to follow Byzantine liturgical rites. The Vatican did not require complete conversion to the Roman Catholicism, only the acceptance of the four essential points that were the foundation for the Union of the Orthodox and Catholic churches proclaimed by the Council of Florence on July 6th, 1439: 1) The recognition of Pope’s supremacy; 2) The “filioque” in the profession of faith (Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son); 3) The recognition of the existence of purgatory; and 4) The use of unleavened bread in the mass. The Uniates preserved all of their other traditions and rights. In exchange for accepting the union with Rome, the clergy, which up to then was Orthodox, had been accorded the same privileges as their Roman Catholic counterparts [Bolovan I. et al, A History of Romania, The Center for Romanian Studies, The Romanian Cultural Foundation, Iaşi, 1996, 185–190.]. About the Union of Florence in 1439 more details can be obtained in [Hofmann G., “Die Konzilsarbeit in Florenz”, Orient. Christ. Period., № 4, 1938, 157–188, 373–422; Hofmann G., Epistolae pontificiae ad Concilium Florentinium spectantes, Vol. I–III, Roma, 1940−1946; Gill J., The Council of Florence, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959; Gill J., Personalities of the Council of Florence, Oxford, 1964; Ostroumoff N. I., The History of The Council of Florence, Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1971]. About the Uniate Church, see in [Fortescue A., The Uniate Eastern Churches, Gorgias Press, 2001].

[xi] On the Romanian case of relations between confession and ethnicity in Transylvania, see in [Oldson O. W., The Politics of Rite: Jesuit, Uniate, and Romanian Ethnicity in 18th-Century, New York:  Colombia University Press, East European Monographs, Boulder, 2005].

[xii] About the history of the Serbs in the New Age, see in [Екмечић М., Дуго кретање између клања и орања. Историја Срба у Новом веку (1492−1992), Треће, допуњено издање, Београд: Evro-Guinti, 2010].

[xiii] TANJUG, March 28th, 1985, in the BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Eastern Europe / 7914 B/ 1, April 1985; Bulgaria: Continuing Human Rights Abuses against Ethnic Turks, Amnesty International, EUR/15/01/87, 5; Amnesty International, “Bulgaria: Imprisonment of Ethnic Turks and Human Rights Activists”, EUR 15/01/89.

[xiv] The total population of Macedonia according to the 1981 census was 1.912.257 of which there were 1.281.195 Macedonians, 377.726 Albanians, 44.613 Serbs, 39.555 Muslims, 47.223 Gypsies, 86.691 Turks, 7.190 Vlahs and 1984 Bulgarians [Poulton H., The Balkans. Minorities and States in Conflict, London: Minority Rights Publications, 1994, 47].

[xv] Sellier A., Sellier J., Atlas des peuples d’Europe centrale, Paris, 1991, 143−166; Петковић Р., XX век на Балкану. Версај, Јалта, Дејтон, Београд: Службени лист СРЈ, 53–55; Statistical Pocket Book: Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, 1993. In order to illustrate the whole complexity of the ethnic minority phenomena on the Balkans, the best example is Bosnia-Herzegovina where alongside with the three recognised nations (according to the Dayton Accords in November 1995, the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats) the following national groups as the ethnic minorities are living too: the Montenegrins, the Gypsies, the Ukrainians, the Albanians, the Slovenians, the Macedonians, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Poles, the Italians, the Germans, the Jews, the Slovaks, the Romanians, the Russians, the Turks, the Ruthenians (the Russyns), and the “Yugoslavs”. This information is based on data supplied by the “International Police Task Force” (IPTF) on January 17th, 1999.

[xvi] Europa Yearbook 1975, London, 1976. For the matter of illustration, the following ethnic and religious groups lived in Aegean Macedonia in 1912: the Macedonians, the Muslim Macedonians (the Pomaks), the Turks, the Christian Turks, the Cherkez (the Mongols), the Greeks, the Muslim Greeks, the Muslim Albanians, the Christian Albanians, the Vlahs, the Muslim Vlahs, the Jews, the Gypsies, and others. All of them made a total of 1.073.549 inhabitants of this part of the Balkans.

[xvii] Jugoslovenski pregled, № 3, 1977.

[xviii] Steele D., “Religion as a Fount of Ethnic Hostility or an Agent of Reconciliation?”, Janjić D. (ed.), Religion & War, Belgrade, 1994, 163–184.

[xix] Ramet P., “Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslavia”, Ramet P. (ed.), Religion and Nationalism in Soviet and East European Politics, Durham, 1989, 299–311.

[xx] Marković I., Srpsko pravoslavlje i Srpska pravoslavna crkva, Zagreb, 1993, 3–4.

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