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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 27:105–119.


Transformation of the Territorial Structure in South-Eastern Europe


It is a key feature of the history of the Balkans that since the countries of the region had gained their independence, the area has become some kind of secondary clash point or conflict zone for the ambitions of the Great Powers, with the countries of the region themselves being exposed to them to a considerable extent.

Precisely as a result of this situation the countries of the Balkans built their policies to a greater extent around the respective Great Power they expected to gain support from in satisfying their ambitions and the kind of cracks and opportunities within the scope of the Great Power conflicts, which could mean the realisation of these ambitions. This is perhaps important from the perspective of regional development, from the development of the transport network to cities and an administrative system, given that this too, was determined to a great extent by adjustment to the Great Powers.


Characteristics of Territorial Development

The formation and evolution of development policy within the Balkan countries may be divided into three major periods, the first lasting from the date of the respective countries’ establishment up to World War II, the second from 1945 up to, broadly speaking, the transition, with the third comprising the period following the transition in 1990.

These political periods were widely different, but certain elements of the regional and territorial development endeavours and policies may be evidenced which – so to speak – span the whole period and have been features of the countries’ regional policies to this day. Four such elements may be singled out that are particularly characteristic of the first period, but some of their features appear also in the subsequent periods.

The first one as the main ambition was the development of capital cities into European-level metropolitans. The second one was to have access to the seas and to establish ports. The third element was the creation of the territorial and settlement conditions of an ethnically homogeneous nation state, and, finally, the fourth one was the creation of an integrated state territory within the framework created by the changing size of territory.

In the first half of the 19th century today’s Balkan capital cities were still towns of a mere ten to twenty thousand inhabitants. In the majority of cases they were not even the biggest cities in their respective countries at a time when different political ambitions determined the status of a capital city. The elites of those countries lived in these cities, hence it is not accidental that a substantial proportion of the resources available were utilised here. This feature was not unfamiliar to the events experienced in Hungarian history within the same period. For a long time after the establishment of an independent state, governments did not pay particular attention to the countryside, agriculture or rural people. Two such governments are worth mentioning in so far as they proved an exception in this respect. One was the Bulgarian government of Aleksandar Stamboliyski, the other being the Romanian government of Juliu Maniu, although the latter did not hold office long enough to exert any significant impact.

Table 1 and Figure 1 show population growth within the major cities of South-Eastern Europe. In 1800, except for Istanbul, Thessalonica constituted the biggest city in the region. At that time Athens had just 12,000 inhabitants compared to the 70,000 in Thessalonica, and furthermore it should be noted that numerous settlements in Greece were substantially bigger than Athens. At the same time Budapest could boast some 50,000 inhabitants, Bucharest 32,000 and Belgrade 25,000. In Bulgaria at least three cities could be listed, such as Varna, Sumen and Ruse, which were bigger than Sofia. In the area of modern-day Serbia Subotica remained the most populous city up to the very end of the 19th century.

It is clear that Budapest enjoyed the largest boom and population growth within the first period with the population of the other cities growing considerably more rapidly in the second half of the 20th century. By 2000 Athens had developed into by far the biggest city in the region. Bucharest also has a population in excess of Budapest, while in recent times the population of Belgrade is also approaching that of Budapest.

The second feature – striving for access to the seas and the development of ports – was a determining ambition of every country. As far as the Black Sea was concerned, the building up of ports had already started under the Turkish government, before the formation of the independent states as well as the acquisition of coastal territory. The Danube (Tuna) vilayet, which included Dobruja and Northern Bulgaria, was used by the Ottoman Empire as a sample territory to demonstrate that it was capable of launching and supporting economic growth. At that time the first railway line was built between Kustendje, today’s Constanţa, and Cernavodǎ The Romanians at that time did not have a single railway. The Turks built the lines between Varna and Ruse, in addition to the railway line between Varna and Cernavodǎ which the later national government developed further, for example from Cernavodǎ to Bucharest. These ports and access to the sea were of decisive significance in the country’s further economic growth. Prior to the acquisition of Dobruja, the decisive proportion of Romania’s foreign trade and economic links had been directed towards the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. From the birth of its access to the sea, however, the structure of Romanian foreign trade changed totally, and it exported the overwhelming proportion of its products, such as grain and others, including oil, to Great Britain. Bulgaria had similar ambitions, and during the Balkan Wars Serbia also strove to gain access to the sea across Albanian territory. Even an ideology was created to it. The Balkan countries were, in fact, ’inclined to’ regard their given territories as if the current ethnic structure had been in existence for every period of history. Numerous such works, propaganda material, etc., appeared which tried to demonstrate Romanians and Bulgarians as maritime nations since times immemorial having an ancient right to possess these territories.

The third characteristic element was constituted by efforts towards creating a homogeneous and unified nation state and it had territorial consequences. All over these countries significant national minorities lived. What is perhaps even more important is that there were significant ethnic and religious differences in the composition of urban and rural population almost everywhere. One – by no means the last – instrument of the creation of an ethnically homogeneous state was the development of capital cities. They wanted to build up cities that would embody national ambitions and where the national composition would be dominated to a significant extent by the titular nation. In other respects, too, such measures were taken which meant the squeezing out of other nationalities. Land reforms in Bulgaria and Serbia may be cited as examples of such measures. In many instances, though, more violent means such as resettlement and expulsion were employed in the Balkan countries in the interest of changing the national and ethnic composition.

The fourth common element was an effort to create a unitary state within changing borders. Namely, political relations in the Balkan Peninsula changed radically in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early 19th century the whole area still belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The borders of the nation states gradually took shape, gaining further territory primarily from the Ottoman Empire but occasionally from one another, too. The only stretch of border, which did not change in the course of the 20th century is the long segment of the Bulgarian-Romanian borderline of the River Danube. Between the establishment of the independent states and 1938 the territory of Romania grew 2.6 times, Bulgarian territory 1.8 times, Greek territory 2.7 times and the territory of the original Serbia within the state of Yugoslavia 6.7 times. This meant fundamental territorial changes, the unification of areas that used to belong to various empires having different kinds of transport and economic orientation. This posed a serious challenge for all the countries. In this sense, the Balkan states faced the issues of regional development earlier than the West European ones. How could they solve this round of problems? Different concepts were generated, but the solution and realisation only advanced slowly and with difficulty, and has not been completed to this day.


New Era between 1945 and 1990

The second era from the perspective of regional development was the period from 1945 to 1990. All of the aims and ambitions formulated prior to the war continued to prevail in this period, too, though obviously under changing conditions. Adjustment to the Great Power constellation and the exploitation of the consequent opportunities continued. The Cold War, for instance, started with Britain handing over the obligation of supporting and keeping Greece alive to the United States in 1947, and from then on it was to a significant extent Western support provided within the framework and spirit of the Cold War that determined Greece’s future development. Yugoslavia manoeuvred with its non-aligned policy between the East and West, which produced significant profits. Somewhat later Romania tried the same tactic but with less success. Bulgaria hoped, with maximum loyalty towards the Soviet Union, to obtain additional resources and opportunities. Albania tried to improve its situation by alternating its political orientation (between Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China), until, in the end, with its rigid and doctrinaire policies it ran out of patrons by the 1980s.

The priority of developing capital cities was continued but with slower pace than in the previous period. Indeed, already towards the end of the 1950s, every country tried to enforce certain restrictions to prevent overgrowth, for example prohibited moving-in and establishing industries.

The development of access to the sea continued to enjoy priority. Homogeneous nation-state aims also continued to prevail. Resettlements and relocations did occur within this period although to a lesser extent than in Central Europe, in the Polish, Czech and German territories. Such measures, however, did affect Germans, Hungarians, Albanians, Bulgarians and Turks during this period.

At the same time new phenomena also appeared in regional development policy. One of them was the industrialisation of backward regions; another was the pursuit of territorial equalisation of the standard of development and of living conditions. The third one was – as the sole remaining independent area for politicians to politicking – a kind of regional lobbying; as such, the appearance of enforcing the interests of the different regions.

As far as industrialisation and urbanisation were concerned, unbelievable changes took place in the economic structure. Table 2 shows that in 1930 70–80–90% of the population still worked in agriculture; by 1980 – with the exception of Albania – this had usually dropped to 30–40%, which means that a change of 20–30–40% took place at the cost of the agricultural sector and to the benefit of other sectors. This meant an enormous change in the social structure in these countries.


Table 2
The Proportion of the Population Employed in Agriculture Within the Balkan Countries 1931–1980


Population employed
in agriculture in







(expressed as %)




– 29.7




– 40.7




– 22.8




– 39.6




– 23.8


For the most part the same may be noticed in respect of urbanisation in Table 3. Between 1949 and 1966 the annual average growth rate of the urban population in most countries stood at 4–5%. It means that within 15 years the number of city dwellers had effectively doubled. In contrast, the 1.6% growth in Hungary, which was considered to be a very dynamic urbanisation at the time, was actually a very modest pace. This comparison demonstrates the extraordinary pace of urbanisation in the Balkans.

The infrastructure found it difficult to keep pace with urbanisation on such an extraordinarily fast scale. The possibility of working and living in two distinct places emerged. In addition, what a Yugoslav researcher defined at the time as the ruralisation of cities gained significance.1 Such people migrated into the cities who had not yet fully broken away from their rural life, and they took with them several features of their country life both to their prefab blocks of flats and to their housing estates resulting in an entirely peculiar and bizarre way of life in more than one of the Balkan countries.


Table 3
The Scale of Migration to the Cities between 1949 and 1966


Urban population (expressed in 000s) in 1949

Proportion (expressed as %)

Urban population (expressed in 000s) in 1966

Proportion (expressed as %)

Annual average growth rate
































On the Equalisation of Territories

The following round of questions relates to efforts towards equalisation. Equalisation actually took place among the individual countries and within individual countries as well as among regions and was nurtured by two factors. One of the factors was that in every region industry became the leading sector as a result of the extraordinary proportions and extensive nature of industrialisation. Equalisation took place in the employment structure and in the proportion of the industry sector. There was also a second factor, namely, the isolation from the Western world, autarchy, and last but by no means least, those measures the Western world introduced against the countries of Eastern and Central Europe which did not permit the import of highly developed technologies, moreover, embargoes and the COCOM list were introduced against these countries. As a result the leading regions and countries in the area gradually failed to keep up with worldwide technical and economic development, and their technical standard ’approximated’ that of the Balkan countries. Figure 2 illustrates, considering the Austrian export volume per capita as 100% every year between 1929 and 1998, how the per capita exports of the Central and South-Eastern European countries and the volume by which they participated in world economy changed. For example, Czechoslovakia could produce higher exports than Austria up to the 1950s.

Afterwards, at the end of the period in 1990 ’equalisation’ among the countries was completed but at the lowest possible level. This is true for development both among the countries as within them.

Regional lobbying was a peculiar feature of the era. Within these countries one party, to a greater or lesser extent dictatorial systems came into being, where any deviation from the main political line, especially in leading positions was inconceivable. Where could politicians indulge in their individual ambitions? Regional lobbying was the legal opportunity, which could be exploited in this sense. In some way it was necessary since every resource originated from the centre, from where the opportunities for development could be created. For the majority of politicians this was the only opportunity for individual, autonomous politicking trying to acquire the largest possible quantity of resources for their own region, city, etc.

Interestingly this peculiar feature in the Balkan countries was perhaps one of the main elements in the formation of a kind of regional identity. Actually in the earlier period some kind of identity of the rural, peasant population of the Balkans linked them at the most only to their own villages. No manner of identity was attached to the different administrative units above their immediate surroundings in the Turkish Empire (kaza, sanjak, vilayet), for them this was a totally alien foreign sphere. A kind of regional identity developed after 1945. This is especially true in Yugoslavia where several federal republics came into being, for example Macedonia, within which the national identity emerged only during this period.


From the Transition to the Present

Finally, the third age is the period stretching from the transition to the present day. In the first half of the period a general decline ensued, followed by slight growth. Up to 2003, with the exception of Greece and Albania not one single country reached the 1989 annual GDP level. Naturally, the transition difficulties varied from country to country, depending on the initial situation, and the Yugoslavian drama was unique in itself. But what was happening in Yugoslavia affected every country both economically and politically.

Figures 3 and 4 show how the GDP changed in the Balkan countries. Greece was the only one, which was not affected by the change of the system and growth was more or less unbroken. In the other countries after 1989 a decline was to be observed and a significant drop in GDP took place. Figure 3 shows data for Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia. Croatian decline was stronger but with time it managed to catch up, exceeding Bulgaria’s total growth rate between 1989 and 2003.

Figure 4 contains data for Albania, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro as well as Macedonia. Albania significantly surpassed the 1989 level. It should, however, be added that this is not an outstanding performance since by 1989 the country had reached such a low level on account of the previous policies that overcoming it cannot be considered a great wonder.

For the most part Romania and Macedonia are at the same level today as they were in 1989. Serbia and Montenegro, however, still did not reach 50% of their 1989 GDP around 2003. This is a real tragedy in the history of a country.

A new feature of regional development in this period was the general decrease in population and at the same time in the number of urban inhabitants. The disintegration of former foreign and domestic economic relations was characteristic with its regional consequences, furthermore the dramatic growth in regional differences was also typical. Finally, the regional policy of the European Union has appeared as well as the effects thereof in one form or another.

In contrast to the extremely dynamic population growth experienced during the previous period, between 1990 and 1995, with the exception of Greece and the three Yugoslav member republics, population dropped significantly everywhere, most dramatically in Bulgaria and Romania. According to UN forecasts though, primarily due to the low natural demographic movements, the population of every country will decrease between 2005 and 2030. This is primarily a consequence of natural demographic changes, but also of migration to a significant extent. A special case in this respect is Vojvodina. Between 1991 and 2001, in every district and every region of Serbia and Montenegro the population decreased significantly. The sole exceptions were the three districts of Vojvodina, namely South-Bačka, Central-Bačka and Syrmia, where a significant growth took place in the population. At the same time the natural demographic changes were the most unfavourable here. Following the Balkan war, Vojvodina was the main area for resettlement and settlement of refugees. This assumed such proportions that it resulted in the largest population growth in the whole of Serbia and Montenegro. This process radically changed the ethnic composition of Vojvodina.

Table 4 shows the population changes in certain countries. Even in Albania, where the birth rate is generally extremely high, population decline took place between 1990 and 2005, which can be attributed primarily to migration and emigration. One may remember from television broadcasts those ships in which tens of thousands of Albanians tried to get across to Italy during this period. Growth is to be reckoned with in this field in the future, too. In Bulgaria the decrease of the population is dramatic, where from 1990 to 2005 it was reduced by one million from 8.7 million, and by 2030 the population may be expected to be a mere 6.2 million. Within this short period of time the population loss suffered by this country of 8.7 million inhabitants will be 2.5 million. It should be added that the UN forecasts try to soften the demographic and migratory processes, which may take place here. In reality an even greater population decrease is possible.


Table 4
Actual Changes in Population Between 1990 and 2005
and UN Forecasts up to 2030 (expressed in 000s)









3 289

3 133

3 062

3 130

3 325

3 512


4 308

3 420

3 847

3 907

3 893

3 639


8 718

8 279

7 797

7 726

7 156

6 243


10 160

10 657

10 975

11 120

11 233

11 119


4 517

4 669

4 505

4 551

4 454

4 161


1 909

1 963

1 967

1 967

1 942

1 842


10 365

10 329

10 226

10 098

9 802

9 221


4 364

4 339

4 275

4 206

4 114

3 856


23 207

22 681

22 117

21 711

20 871

19 285

Serbia and Montenegro

10 156

10 548

10 545

10 503

10 416

10 114


1 926

1 964

1 967

1 967

1 942

1 842


51 891

51 513

49 116

46 481

41 849

35 052


Romania’s situation is largely similar, between 1990 and 2005 the number of inhabitants decreased by more than one million from 23 million to 21.7 million. In this country a population decline of 3.5 million could take place between 1990 and 2030. Perhaps the most dramatic case, however, is Ukraine, where the number of inhabitants could drop by 17 million from 52 million to 35 million by 2030.

In contrast to the earlier, inconceivably fast growth of towns, in most places a reduction is taking place also in the more restricted administrative area of cities. The second column of Table 5 contains the highest number of inhabitants ever and their respective dates, whereas the next column shows the current population of the same administrative area. Two cities, Belgrade and Tirana do not appear in the Table. The number of inhabitants of Belgrade did not officially grow, but unofficially some 150,000 to 200,000 refugees, who have arrived from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, reside in Belgrade. The motivation lying behind the concentration of refugees in the capital city is that they feel that they can assert their interests there and put forward their demands. Given that they are not registered, the refugees obviously are not included in the official census, but in reality they do increase the number of inhabitants.

Earlier a significant proportion of the intelligentsia and the more highly qualified were resettled from Tirana for re-education – following the Chinese example – to the highland regions. Those trying to return after the change of the system found that their homes had been occupied for a long time thus those returning constructed ’buildings’ for themselves in Tirana’s public areas from sheet metal and other elements.


Table 5
Population Decline in the More Restricted City Areas (expressed in 000s)


Highest number of inhabitants and respective dates

Current number of inhabitants


885 (1981)



2076 (1987)



2394 (1990)



448 (1981)



563 (1991)



1142 (1996)



407 (1981)



707 (1991)



Economic Relations of the Southeast European Countries

Important determining factors in the countries’ situation were their external relations. In the last decade prior to the transition COMECON co-operation became fairly unipolar, reduced to relations with de Soviet Union. Those countries that had very intensive connections with COMECON were most seriously affected by their breakage. This was valid primarily in the case of Bulgaria. The effects of the financial and debt crisis were the most serious in Romania and Bulgaria. In Romania not so much after 1990 but rather before, when between 1980 and 1990 the Ceausescu regime forced the country to pay back its debts to the last penny. Running into debt is a very bad policy, but paying back one’s debts in total is even worse. In other words, Romania arrived at the threshold of transition with an economy in poor shape and ruined, and with an extremely deteriorated standard of living and circumstances of life.

The breaking up of Yugoslavia had serious commercial consequences, too. Slovenia, as Yugoslavia’s most developed part, prospered for such a long time mostly because its products were in great demand in the other republics. A small land of 2 million people had in a certain sense a monopolised market of some 22 million at its disposal. Temporarily the effects thereof were felt in Slovenia, too, but they did succeed in reorienting their trade towards a different direction. Different effects of Yugoslavia’s breaking up prevailed in Macedonia. At the time of the united Yugoslav state an extremely large proportion of the resources were allocated in there in the form of development subsidy from the more developed regions. With the then applied expression a series of ’political’ factories were established without any economic foundation, only serving to create workplaces and industry in the Macedonian area. It should be added that essentially the Macedonian Slavs got jobs and they also got state housing. The Albanians were predominantly excluded from all this. They tried to eke out an existence by undertaking work abroad. After the transition the tide turned. The political factories were closed down, the blocks of flats were in poor condition with heating not working during the period of economic crisis; while the Albanians in the family houses they had built themselves and with the income they had earned abroad could live under much more favourable conditions. This too, was one of the sources of the later ethnic conflicts.

The splitting up of Bosnia-Herzegovina also had serious consequences. Relations between the Croat-Muslim federation and the Republic of Serbia broke down for a long time, although a rather significant proportion of the industry had developed in a way that the regions producing raw materials were in the Republic of Serbia, while the processing part, for example in the aluminium industry was in the federation. The number of people employed in agriculture was much higher among the Serbs, yet the agricultural areas remained limited for them, while on the other side – the Bosnians and the Croats – were rather city dwellers forced to move to the villages and pursue agricultural activities.

The Balkan war and the embargo was accompanied by seriously adverse effects on the neighbouring countries, too, when shipments through Yugoslavia ceased and, for example, from Bulgaria it was possible to transport goods to Western Europe via a more than 2000 km detour.

A feature of regional growth in the new period has been the growth of regional inequality. When the earlier isolation disappeared and the effects of the world market prevailed much more directly, the equalisation which had taken place previously among the regions and provinces all but dissolved within one or two years. A rather significant regional differentiation started within the countries, depending on whether and to such an extent as the market economy unfolded and as international capital appeared in these regions. These phenomena initially influenced rather the Central European countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, but gradually emerged in the Balkan countries, too. The latter’s development in the course of this period was characterised by one or two regions becoming conspicuous carrying the economic growth of the whole.

Table 6 shows what percentage of the growth of the GDP was produced by capital city regions between 1995 and 2001. It is visible that within Hungary the Central Hungary region, i.e. Budapest and Pest County produced 58% of the entire GDP growth. In Bulgaria and Romania where this value is above 100%, it means that in these countries the generation of income of all the other regions dropped and alone the growth in the regions around the capital cities tried to counterbalance decline. In Bulgaria, the region around Sofia produced 151% of the growth, and in Romania Bucharest produced 278%.


The effects of the regional policies of the European Union have for the time being hardly affected the Balkan countries, since so far they have just had access to pre-accession aid. Yet the requirements thereof also formed a kind of regionalisation. Every country complied with the requirements for the establishment of the planning regions, but none in such a way that would simultaneously include a reform of public administration. Bulgaria is an interesting example, in so far as around 1990 it possessed such large units of public administration that would have satisfied the European Union’s requirements. Those nine greater regions, however, were refashioned into 28 smaller regions thereby distancing themselves from the Union’s requirements. During the new period between 2007 and 2013 only Romania and Bulgaria can get their share of the pre-accession funds. But from 2007 they have also been promised to become members of the European Union. Their situation is ’more unfortunate’ from the point of view that if they become members of the European Union in 2007 the support for the whole period of time was already determined for such a period when they were not members and as such could not assert their interests.

In the field of their own regional development policies they are pursuing the strategy of the poor for the time being at least. None of the Balkan countries are currently in the situation of being able to provide investment support from the state budget, therefore they are adopting the other version, namely, commitment for the future. They are promising tax and other payment reductions of contributions to companies coming in, a method that may prove to be more expensive in the long run than granting assistance in the present. Poor countries, however, hardly have any other choice.




Kosta, M.: Regional Development Experiences and Prospects in Eastern Europe. Mouton, The Hague, 1972.