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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 27:145–155.


The Transformation of the City Network in the Balkans*


Over the last decade and a half the Balkans has not escaped the processes of rapid change within the city network and urbanisation. Similarly, the devastation wrought by the war has affected the transformation of cities and city network just as the changes of the demographic features, migration and ethnic relations. All these factors together have strengthened the traditional features of cities but have also brought new, thus far unusual changes. Nowadays the repair of the war damage may be experienced simultaneously with the falling number of population here and there; elsewhere it is growing, while the processes of migration are accelerating. Beside the decaying districts and entire cities one can find dynamic urban renewal as well as extensive property development. Besides the war and ethnic disturbances, beyond the birth of the new states and new capital cities, changes in the socio-economic system have also shaped the Balkan city network.


Urbanisation in the History of the Balkans

The features of the city network of the south-eastern parts of Europe differ fundamentally from those of Central Europe, principally from those of the German and Czech language areas, or from those of Western Europe. The Balkan city network was sparser and usually of lower population density than those in the western part of the continent. Significant centres, principally Istanbul and Athens, evolved only around the rims; while there were simply no cities in the inner regions that would have possessed a force of attraction or alluring for the whole area. The capital cities of the states established in the 19th and 20th centuries were small provincial towns. The reasons may be discovered in the natural geographical characteristics of the Balkans, since the upland, and indeed mountainous relief of the land does not favour the development of significant population concentrations. The fact that the area belonged to the lands of the Turkish Empire also bears significance in so far as for centuries it was the imperial periphery. Thus with the exception of a few former administrative centres, Skopje for example, more significant towns and cities could not develop.

As the Turkish Empire was pushed back, the newly formed states endeavoured to develop the small capital cities they had inherited. A modernising capital city became the symbol of national pride. It happened that another settlement of potentially lesser significance was named the national capital in place of the former centre and started to develop, as was the case with, for example, Bucharest and Sofia. At that time the degree of urbanisation within these countries was extremely low with the proportion of town and city dwellers standing at around just 20%.

The decades of Socialism evidenced a substantial growth in the size of the urban population and in its proportion within the population as a whole. Two ideologies supported this urbanisation. One emphasised the leading role of the working classes within society, and as such sought to make room for settling their ranks and to expand the number of industrial towns and cities, and the number of inhabitants therein. On the other hand, the consolidation of the borders of the young nation states enabled and indeed necessitated the strengthening of the capital cities and city networks within the national areas and its adjustment to the territory of the new state. Certain countries were only able to carry out this correction in the second half of the 20th century. This time saw not only the modernisation of the capital cities but also the strengthening of regional centres, which in terms of Yugoslavia meant the administrative centres of the federal republics. As a result, towns and cities grew significantly, among them the number of so-called ’Socialist cities’, i.e. centres based on an individual industrial plant. As such, the number of towns and cities in the region grew by more than two and a half times in the second half of the 20th century; by the mid-1950s 402, by the turn of the millennium some 1098 cities were recorded.1 Besides the increase in the sheer number of cities, growth was also evidenced in the number of city dwellers. In almost every size category growth is striking. Today three large cities exist in the area, with populations exceeding one million people, indeed the number of inhabitants in Bucharest was already over two million by the end of the 1980s. The growth in the industrial significance of the cities and their consequent force of economic attraction has grown more than the pace of growth of the community infrastructure. As a result, in a number of countries the process of rural inhabitants relocating to the cities has been restricted. Together with this the proportion of the urban population saw a marked increase during this time and has significantly transformed the image of cities. The construction of housing blocks became prevalent in some places, and with scant justification, even in small towns.

The notion of Balkan urbanisation changed fundamentally through the decades of Socialism (Figure 1). The number of cities, and the size and proportion of the urban population grew considerably, and with the exception of some countries (or member republics and provinces) they have been approaching the global and European average. This process has contributed to the fact that in the region the degree of urbanisation has risen and ’spread’, in light of which regional differences have decreased.


Features of Urbanisation at the Turn of the 20th and 21st Centuries

The changes which took place in a number of countries in the early 1990s reversed the process of streaming to the cities. The raison d’être of the socialist cities, established around a single branch of industry or around the mining industry, to a significant extent ceased to exist, given the fact that after the transition the obsolete industrial constructions went bankrupt, had come to a standstill or manufactured at a substantial loss (this gave rise to especially serious social conflicts in Romania). Residents remaining without an income could not bear the material burden of urban utility services provided increasingly at market prices, and as a result many chose rather to move to the countryside. Rural existence and self-sufficient agricultural production could ensure their survival through these times. At this time in Romania, for example, the number of people moving from the cities to the villages grew significantly as did the number of those making a living from agriculture.2

The growth in the number of urban residents came to a stop, and indeed started to fall in many countries. Two primary reasons for this can be distinguished: on the one hand, the natural demographic change, i.e. the dramatic fall in the birth rate and the changes in the direction of migration on the other. The fall in the birth rate and the rapid natural ’slimming down’ of the population was particularly characteristic of Romania and Bulgaria following the transition. The change in demographic conditions led to a reduction in the number of inhabitants across the country as a whole, in addition to which the number of city dwellers also dropped. Migration also changed directions. In a number of countries, but most particularly in Slovenia and Romania, suburbanisation processes started. The city population started to migrate to rural areas surrounding the cities and the number of city dwellers declined significantly (Figure 2). This phenomenon is evident both around Ljubljana and Bucharest, but it may also be seen around the larger provincial centres in both countries.3 This process has contributed primarily to the significant decline in the number of inhabitants of Bucharest (similarly, as is the case of Budapest). In these regions the proportion of city dwellers also started to decline in the course of the 1990s.

This decline in the number of city residents also took place in Bulgaria, but in spite of this their proportion within the total population grew. This was due to the fact that, besides the tragic Bulgarian demographic conditions – the ratio of children per woman here is perhaps the lowest in the world – the size of the reduction of urban population is smaller than in the rural settlements. Migration also hit the rural settlements, while the cities, in particular the capital Sofia, continue to be attractive migration destinations, thus migration to a certain extent served to moderate the natural population loss.4

The population level of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, as well as Belgrade has likewise dropped over the past decade and a half. At the same time the proportion of urban population has increased since the urban areas have remained the chief migration destinations. In particular, the indicators of natural increase in cities inhabited by Albanians are positive. As such, the number of inhabitants is growing naturally but among the Albanians fleeing Kosovo many have found their new homes here. (For similar reasons the number of inhabitants of the Turkish majority cities in Bulgaria also evidenced a slight growth.) In Serbia, the provincial centres continue to be attractive, thus their level of population has increased and it is expected that this tendency will continue for years to come.5 The number and proportion of inhabitants within the Croatian cities have both seen an increase. In Serbia, the settlement of refugees has contributed to the growth in the number of city dwellers. With Yugoslavia’s break-up and as a consequence of the wars and ethnic conflicts, inhabitants of Serb nationality arrived in large numbers from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo into the central area of Serbia and Vojvodina in the course of the 1990s. The bulk of their settlement took place in the cities, further increasing the number of city inhabitants.

In the examples shown thus far, cities, even if this may also be visible from the growth in the number of inhabitants, have essentially passed the period of dynamic growth within the urbanisation process. Albania’s urbanisation tendency does, however, differ somewhat. Here we can still experience a rapid growth in the proportion of city dwellers (Figure 3). Demographic indicators, i.e. the high birth rate, and internal migration alike have brought about growth in the capital, Tirana, and the port cities of Durres and Vlora. In Albania, prior to the transition, residents were administratively prevented from moving to the cities; moving to the capital was a privilege available for a maximum of one hundred people per annum. Much of the intelligentsia, following the Chinese pattern, was settled in the countryside. After the transition such restrictions ceased to exist and the flow to the cities could begin. Due to the effect of the new economic circumstances internal migration was directed from the provincial towns and cities towards the centre and the coast to such an extent that the majority of the Albanian prefectures evidenced a negative balance of migration, while in the case of the three cities mentioned and the prefecture of Fier this balance was positive (Figure 4). A further contributing factor was that Shkodra, situated in the north and previously Albania’s biggest city, had been pushed into the background during the Socialist era, and for reasons of power and other political matters had not received the proper support to sustaining its growth. To this day it lags behind the central and coastal regions in terms of its state of development.


Problems of Urban Development

The devastation wrought by the war in the 1990s, directly or indirectly affected many towns and cities. War damage was incurred for the most part on the frontlines, primarily in the cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, i.e. Slavonia and the coast, hit by fighting. Serbia also suffered considerable damage partly in the course of the clashes in Kosovo, and partly as a consequence of the NATO bombing of other parts of Serbia, i.e. Belgrade and Novi Sad, etc. In the final analysis the process of rebuilding after the war damage has been dragging on until the present, as at the earlier frontlines it has taken long years to jolt life back to normal again. In the cities which saw the fiercest fighting, buildings gutted and blown apart are still visible today. Repair work has been hindered by the fact that the central administration had not been reorganised for years. A lack of clarity in the conditions of ownership still poses a significant problem to this day. The former owners have fled in many cases leaving no one to reconstruct buildings which had been blown apart. Many fled (or rather were driven out or killed) the former frontline towns and cities because of ethnic affiliation, but many also left these settlements because, as a consequence of the war activities, the local economy had ceased to exist along with their financial means. Refugees fleeing from the fighting and violence on the basis of their ethnicity and those settling down in their national homelands once the new states had been established, obtained new places to live in other towns and cities. Ethnic Serb families resettled from Bosnia and Kosovo, for example, moved to towns in Vojvodina as well as to Belgrade. This situation in turn transformed ethnic relations within Vojvodina. Due to brutality and violence, ethnic Albanians moved from Kosovo in the direction of the north-west area of Macedonia, in particular to Tetovo.

At the same time this considerable population migration caused a second important problem for towns and cities, namely, that of illegal settlement. The majority of the inhabitants did not resettle officially. They did not feel the need to fulfil their duty to register with the police. As such, the data recording the number of inhabitants in the cities is vague. Settlers create deprived areas and shanty towns. This is particularly significant in Albania’s capital and its surrounding area. The settlement plans and regulations, the lack of, or weakness in inspections on the part of the relevant building authority in many places facilitated the phenomenon of construction without permission. This did not occur merely in the poorest regions of the Balkans but even in the tourist areas of Greece, too. Such new conditions, disorder and confusion have constituted a serious challenge for public services. The rapid spread of motorisation created chaotic conditions in the sphere of transport since the network had not yet been developed to fit today’s conditions.

The problem of segregation may be perceived increasingly within the transformation of cities’ inner spaces. Segregation along the lines of ethnicity and faith are traditional in Balkan towns and cities. The decades under Socialism served to relax this situation somewhat since the masses streaming into the cities and the building of housing estates in any case altered ethnic conditions. With these measures the former ethnic composition of towns and cities was transformed, as the rural population moving in was often of a different ethnicity opposed to the traditional urban residents. The decades under Socialism with efforts at equalisation gave rise to city quarters with mixed inhabitants. The ethnic strife of the 1990s, however, again reinforced segregation along the lines of ethnicity and faith. For the most part, in those towns and cities that had suffered ethnic cleansing, the spatial separation of the ethnic groups intensified. This was particularly the case in the towns and cities inhabited by Albanians and Serbs, and Albanians and Macedonians, i.e. Kosovska Mitrovica, Priština and Skopje, but exactly the same process prevailed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, too, among the Bosnian-Croat-Serb population, i.e. in Mostar and Sarajevo. It often happened that in certain towns and cities almost the entire population belonging to one of the nationalities left (for example, Vukovar). It is a feature of Skopje that it houses the world’s largest Gypsy town (quarter), with more than 30,000 inhabitants.6

The boom on the property market which started in the course of 2004 and 2005, and the new wave of construction reinforced property-based segregation, too.

Current property developments are not being prepared for the average Bulgarian or Albanian resident; these are just affordable for those of better means or the foreign community. Property prices are rising rapidly in the fashionable cities, i.e. in Bucharest, Sofia and Tirana, as well as on the coast. According to the January edition of the journal Tirana Times, property prices in Tirana rose by on average 40% in 2005. This dynamic growth does not simply relate to residential property but is also true for commercial office estates. Demand for property development comes in part from abroad. In Bulgaria, for example, overseas people still gladly buy seaside property in part for their own use, in part as an investment. Of the countries studied, a significant demand also arose on the part of resettled inhabitants. According to certain opinions the investments serve at the same time as a means of laundering property previously acquired illegally. Chiefly in the case of Tirana, foreign material assistance has also been channelled to a considerable extent into urban renewal projects within the city. This growth is a complicated process and only valid for certain settlements in the region.

The formation and transformation of the national and entity borders has also had a considerable impact on the city network. Within the hierarchy of towns and cities, one-time small towns have seemingly forged ahead, all of a sudden breaking out from their roles as small- and medium-sized towns to become capital cities of states or entities. Sometimes the importance of quite small towns shot up. Banja Luka, the seat of the Bosnian-Serb Republic, or Priština, the seat of Kosovo, still today have not reached the level of 200,000 inhabitants, but Sarajevo, Podgorica, Tirana and Skopje, too, may only be termed medium-sized towns and cities with less than 500,000 residents. The new borders also served to separate towns and cities which had previously worked together. An excellent example of this is Slavonski Brod and Bosanski Brod situated on the Sava coast at either side of the Croatian – Bosnia-Herzegovinian border, or the strategically important town of Brøko.7 At the same time the major developed towns and cities within these shrinking state territories lost their attraction. Belgrade, for example, as a big city of 1.5 million people would, in the event of the potential separation of Kosovo and Montenegro, remain the capital of a state of a mere 7 million, thereby creating a ’hydrocephalic’ effect. At the same time the new states do not possess a developed urban network with 20–40% of their urban populations living in the capital city.

Ethnic relations have also interfered in the transformation of the city network. An ’Albanian agglomeration’ is taking shape with the participation of Priština, Tetovo (Skopje) and Tirana. Between these cities, community and economic relations are becoming increasingly stronger.


The decades under Socialism served to ’spread’ urban growth within the region. Modern day processes indicate that the population is concentrated in the central towns and cities or their agglomerations. This is especially true for the junctions and termination points of the transport axes.8 The establishment of small states like Kosovo and Montenegro has practically brought ’city states’ into being, given the fact that apart from the capital city there will be no significant urban centres. The successful, developing circle of towns and cities is the following:

–The traditional capital cities, i.e. Sofia, Bucharest, Belgrade and the ambitious Tirana, which are the primary targets for property investment and internal migration.

–The new capital cities of geopolitical significance supported by the international community, i.e. Priština and Sarajevo.

– The important junctions of the transport network, i.e. port cities, Skopje and Zagreb.

All these cities are growth centres within the region. It may be expected that population and capital will be concentrated in these cities to a greater extent than it is presently, or in certain cases, such as Bucharest, Zagreb and Ljubljana, in their agglomerations. Among the smaller cities, settlements have emerged as capital cities and seats. Their geopolitical weight will decide their respective future success.

As such, the Balkan urban growth did not come to a standstill with the transition and the political changes but is still continuing. The city network has adapted to the new economic and geopolitical order, as well as adjusting to the new national borders. This transformation serves to colour the ethnic picture even further, and failing to recognise this renders the processes of growth in the Balkan city network, both past and present, inexplicable.


* The examination and study tour which serves as the basis for this study is connected to the research study entitled “The transformation in the function and city region of border cities, and changing role of borders in the Carpathian Basin following the expansion of the EU (A határ menti városok funkcióinak és vonzáskörzetének átalakulása a határok szerepének megváltozása, ill. az EU-bővítés után a Kárpát-medencében)” published by the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA) under reference number T049065. The study tour itself was organised by the University of Pécs – Faculty of Natural Sciences (PTE TTK), Research Centre for Eastern-Mediterranean and Balkan Studies (Kelet-Mediterrán és Balkán Tanulmányok Központja).




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