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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 27:95–104.


Ethnic and State Territorial Changes in the Balkans*


We do not know exactly how the ethnographic map of Europe looked like fifteen centuries ago, but we know for certain that it was very different from what it is today. But a thousand years ago most of our continent was inhabited already by the very same peoples as today, and even their area of settlement did not differ very much from that of today. On the other hand until 1945 the borders of the various states kept changing, often radically – almost always as a result of wars. But in the ethnic composition, in the ethnic borders, in Western and Central Europe the changes were not very significant, while in South-Eastern Europe, in all areas affected by the Ottoman conquest and later by the border changes following World War I, the ethnic map, too, underwent radical alterations. Following World War II in the Balkans the state borders and the ethnic composition – unlike in the rest of Europe – continued to change, in a bloody and cruel way. This process may continue in the future.


The Eastern Roman Empire and its Successors

One thousand years ago the decisive major power of South-Eastern Europe was Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire, but from the 5th century onward, as part of the great migration of peoples, the Slavs overran the whole peninsula and indeed the whole eastern half of Europe. At the same time, precisely in the almost impassable mountainous part of the Balkans, remained beside the Greek inhabitants, a partially Romanised Illyrian population, or its two variants, the Albanians and the Wallachians. Within these valleys, which hardly came into contact with one another, different dialects of the Slav language evolved and survived right up to the 20th century. Only the Bulgarians of Turkish origin established an independent state in the 8th century; before long though, they adopted the language of the majority Slavs. They were, with varying success, in a permanent state of war with Byzantium and as such the borders between the two countries changed frequently. The spread of Christianity among the Slavic peoples started from Byzantium and brought, in turn, the spread of the script created by St Cyril and St Methodius. At the time of the great schism in the Church in 1054 the eastern and southern Slavs remained Orthodox, with the exception of the Croats who established their own state in the 10th century, and after some hesitation, most likely as a result of their geographical situation, joined the Christianity of Rome. Dogmatic and related cultural differences drew a sharp dividing line between the individual peoples.

By the 13th century, largely due to the Western crusaders’ occupation of Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire had cracked; numerous smaller independent Greek principalities came into being on the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula; Bulgaria, strengthened by the Wallachians, occupied Dobruja for itself and in the West the Morava valley, including Niš. Further west a separate Serb state of Raška was also established to which Priština belonged; Macedonia, however, constituted a part of the Nicene Greek Empire. Croatia and the Adriatic coastal region, with the exception of the Venetian possessions of Zara (today, Zadar) and Spalato (today, Split), had at that time already been a partner country of Hungary for a century. The Wallachians who were primarily shepherds and whose language bore Latinised characteristics due to the settlers from Southern Italy arriving in the 6th century, spread northwards in search of more fertile lands, crossing the Danube in the 14th century, establishing Wallachia and Moldva, initially under loose Hungarian authority, in the lands sparsely inhabited by Turkish peoples between the Carpathians and the Black Sea. At the time of Louis the Great, the Banates of Ozora-Só, Macsó, and Szörény belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, while Bosnia, Serbia, Wallachia and Moldva constituted Hungarian fiefdoms. It would have been ridiculous to lay any kind of Hungarian claim to these lands or even just to look back with a longing mixed with nostalgia to this great power of medieval Hungary, although in certain countries in the Balkans it is in fashion even today to lay claim to lands or regard them as one’s legal property, whose historic predecessors were, for no matter how short a period of time, in one’s possession. For example, the Serbs thus regarded the short-lived ’empire’ of Stefan Dušan (1344–1355) of the House of Nemanjić, which covered the greatest part of Macedonia, Albania, Epirus and Thessaly.

Over-expansion at that time led to tragedy, in the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Field) the Serb state came to an end simultaneously with the life of the ruling despot Lazar. By the end of the 15th century the entire Balkan region, including Albania, Constantinople, Bosnia, Wallachia and Moldva, had become subject to the rule of the successors to the Ottoman Sultan. Only tiny Zeta, or Montenegro, hardly accessible via sea or mountains, preserved its independence. The European parts of the Turkish Empire, on the basis of the areas’ past went under the name of Rumelia.

As far as the structure of the Church was concerned this enormous area belonged to the Greek Patriarch in Constantinople, with Slav monks living in Orthodox monasteries also using the Greek language. The Muslim Turks looked down on the ’infidel giaours’ but did not force their religion on the conquered peoples, rather accepting and rewarding conversion. This only happened to a greater extent among the Albanians and the former Bosnian Bogumil heretics who could be raised to the rank of higher dignitaries, primarily in the army.


Under the Turkish Empire

The Ottoman Turkish Empire reached its greatest dimensions in the 17th century when its northern border approached Zagreb and the Balaton uplands – Nové Zámky line extended all the way to Košice. The latter constituted the capital of Upper Hungary and at the time of Gábor Bethlen and György Rákóczi I it belonged to the principality of Transylvania which paid tax annually to the Turks. During the centuries-long Turkish occupation no larger uprisings were evidenced in the Balkans. This, however, should not be attributed to any kind of tolerant rule but much rather to the fear of reprisals and retaliation. When, at the end of the 17th century, Christian forces under the leadership of Prince Eugene of Savoy penetrated deep into Turkish territory all the way to Priština suffering defeat and retreating in the end, 300,000 Serbs fled northward under the leadership of the Peć (today part of Kosovo) Serb Patriarch to free themselves from Turkish authority. They settled in the liberated southern region of what is today Vojvodina, thereby laying the foundations for the region’s separation from Hungary, which was to come more than 200 years later. The Karlowitz Peace Treaty concluded in 1699 marked River Sava as the border between the Habsburg and Turkish Empires, leaving the Banat in Turkish hands. With the Peace Treaty of Passarowitz of 1718, ending yet another Turkish war, the Banat came into Habsburg hands along with northern Bosnia, Syrmia, the entire Northern Serbia as far as Niš and Oltenia, although the latter three areas were to be returned to the Turkish Empire in 1739. Constant war and securing the armed forces called the so-called militarised border zone (Militärgrenze) into existence, the administration of which was withdrawn from the authority of the county and placed directly under the control of the Ministry of Defence in Vienna. Within the framework of the reorganisation carried out in the 18th century, Serbs were settling down in this Slavonic region inhabited for the most part by Croats, as they fled from Turkish domination. Beside their military service, the main occupation of these Serbs was agriculture and tried to preserve their ancient farming community system.

In the Turkish regions of the Balkans ethnic relations presented a relatively colourful picture, which was understandable given the lack of borders and consequent free internal movement of peoples. Commerce and the collection of taxes were primarily in the hands of the Fanariotes, named after the Greek quarter of Constantinople. The richest merchants and landowners of Bucharest and the two Danube principalities were Greek or Greek-speaking, although the situation was similar in other Balkan towns and cities, too, while the Turkish language predominated in public administration which remained in the hands of the military. Nevertheless, on the basis of its mixed population, the outside world spoke justly of a ’Balkan Babel’ right up the end of the 19th century. This, however, only resulted in problems when the effects of the French Enlightenment and subsequently the Napoleonic Wars triggered the fashion for ’national awakening’ in the Balkans.


National Movements

The first impetus Napoleon provided was to establish in 1809 a French puppet state under the name of Illyria from the area which is today’s Carinthia, Slovenia and Dalmatia, where he introduced the civil rights and code of law known from the French Revolution. The break-up and accompanying decline of Turkish power and strengthening high-handed behaviour prevalent at the beginning of the 19th century triggered uprisings primarily among the Serbs around Belgrade, then later among the Greeks and finally the Romanians, too. The Russian Empire, which was expanding towards the Balkans with aspirations towards possessing Constantinople, partly on religious grounds (referring to their Orthodox brothers-in-faith), partly on the grounds of the proclaimed Slavic solidarity which supported these stirrings, triggered the suspicion and mistrust of the Habsburg Monarchy. Great Britain, in the interests of protecting the route leading to its Indian possessions, strengthened and extended its influence in the whole area of the Mediterranean Sea. Besides admiration for classical antiquity, this led the British to support the Greek uprising, whilst in the case of Constantinople and the straits they adhered firmly to the preservation of Turkish dominance in the face of the Russians. In the shadow of the various Great Power interests, all the peoples of the Balkans at first attained self-government or autonomy; then gradually spreading its sphere and rights Greece gained full independence in 1830, while Serbia and two Romanian principalities, united in 1859 under the name of Romania, gained their full independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, shortly after being raised to the rank of kingdom from principality. The inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria supported their demand of independence by uprisings from 1875 on, and both were granted autonomy by the Congress of Berlin, the former within the framework of occupation by Austro-Hungary as protector. The aim of the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians alike was to recreate their former states on their largest possible territory, which obviously only succeeded in turning each against the other. A kind of race developed to annex the regions still under Turkish control, principally Macedonia and Kosovo. Knowing that the dispute was to be settled along the lines of the ethnic composition of the given area, the insurgent groups organised against the Turks clashed with one another, leading from time to time to veritable genocide, or in modern parlance ’ethnic cleansing’, in the interests of not allowing a potential future referendum to decide the regional dispute in favour of a rival ethnic group. Before this, however, they needed to rid themselves of Turkish domination and the significant Turkish minority living in the Balkans.

On Russia’s intervention the alliance of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece was established, which, following a successful campaign in 1912, drove the Turks all the way back to Adrianople (Edirne). In spite of the preliminary agreement, Serbia was not willing to hand over the part of Macedonia it occupied in the face of Bulgarian claims, upon which Bulgaria’s soldiers, conceited from their successes against the Turks, attempted to assert their claims by armed force. This was to prove their undoing because the two remaining Allies, together with Romania who was laying claim to the southern part of Dobruja for itself, joined forces with the defeated Turks to inflict a crushing defeat on the exhausted Bulgarian army. The London Conference, which concluded the so-called Second Balkan War, left the military seizures largely in place, redrawing the map of the peninsula, but failed to grant the Serbs their dearly longed-for access to the sea, instead granting the Albanians, who were essentially standing in the way, independent statehood. Serbia, however, could take comfort from the fact that it acquired Kosovo even already at that time with an approximately 70% Albanian majority.

In spite of the considerable spatial growth, in 1913 all the Balkan states were still dissatisfied. The Greeks had not managed to realise their ’Grand Idea’: Constantinople remained in Turkish hands. Bulgaria lamented the San Stefano peace treaty which concluded the Russo-Turkish war and awarded them Macedonia, but which was nullified in Berlin, and of course they nourished an implacable resentment towards Romania, who had stabbed them in the back and stolen South Dobruja. In Romania, the appetite for Transylvania and the Tiszántúl (area beyond the River Tisza) grew. The Albanians were discontented about the fact that more than half of their people found themselves outside Albania, living rather under Serb or Montenegrin authority. In the end, Serbia, which had annexed the greatest area reckoned the time had come to acquire Bosnia, where one-third of the inhabitants were Serb, and the Banat and Bačka both of which belonged to Hungary, where 25% of the population was Serb. A good one and a half million loathed Turkish minority found themselves in the Balkan states which had sprouted up.


The Consequences of the World Wars

If the Balkans were already being called a powder keg before 1912, where a spark was enough to trigger off a war, then after the two Balkan Wars the area became a time bomb. One pistol shot on 28 June 1914 from Gavrilo Princip, an eighteen-year old terrorist trained in Belgrade, was all that it took to set the whole of Europe on fire. All the Balkan countries counted on the fact that finally their old, long-held dreams would be realised, and that they could further expand the territory of their own countries at the expense of their neighbours. As a result of the conflicts among the Great Powers all the small Balkan peoples reckoned with the support of one or more of the Great Powers in pressing their territorial claims. We are all familiar with the outcome: besides the enormous loss of human life every one of them got a taste of both defeat and victory but in the final analysis Greater Serbia and Greater Romania grew significantly in size and the former Habsburg, Turkish and Russian Empires disappeared from the stage of history. The victors, or those lucky enough to find themselves on the side of the victors, however, were incapable of exercising either generosity or commonsense. The new Greater Romania comprising a 69% Romanian majority shamelessly oppressed the Hungarian, Jewish, Ukrainian and Bulgarian minorities, making smaller gestures or concessions only to the Germans. The Southern Slavic state existed as the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in name only; the so-called Vidovdan constitution was accepted with non-Serb protests in 1921, which meant that instead of the hoped-for federation a centralised state of 48% Serbs came into being. The Sabor, the Croatian national assembly, which had been operating for centuries ceased to exist and in the areas inhabited by Albanians and Hungarians, the Serbs endeavoured to gain a majority by means of a policy of expulsions, discrimination and open colonisation. The Bulgarians rightfully complained of the conduct shown towards the Romanian and Greek Bulgarian minorities but they themselves did not treat their own one million Turkish minority in an exactly fair and just manner either. ’Ethnic cleansing’ took place in the most acceptable manner after the 1921–1922 Turkish-Greek War. The two countries agreed on an exchange of inhabitants; thus in Asia Minor the Greek presence which had existed for several thousand years came to an end, while a substantial part of the Balkan Turks relocated to the secular nation of Turkey established by Kemal Pasha. The general ethnic intolerance was coupled with religious intolerance, since in most cases the majority and minority were of different religions. Under such circumstances it was no wonder that the countries and minorities which found themselves in disadvantaged situations awaited the revisions and the changes to their borders which the 1919/1920 peace system would bring.

Between 1939 and 1945 the peoples of the Balkans were afflicted by more serious sufferings than anything they had previously experienced. Yugoslavia was crushed within two weeks by the bellum omnium contra omnes waged by Hitler, the period was characterised by a classic example of traditional warfare, guerrilla warfare, the slaughter of the civilian population and a period characterised by several million people dying or being driven out of their homeland. The territorial gains made by Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia and the Albanians under Italian occupation during the war proved to be short-lived, indeed the vengeance wreaked by the victorious parties was extremely harsh and bloody. Italy was enlarged at the expense of Fiume and Istria, while in the rebuilt Yugoslavia the communist dictator Tito, who had learned from the mistakes of his predecessors, reorganised the state along federal lines. In spite of all their efforts, though, the 80% Albanian Kosovo and the ethnic mosaic of Vojvodina were only granted autonomy within Serbia instead of the desired status of a republic. Although amidst the one-party dictatorship autonomy only prevailed to a limited extent, the language and cultural rights it did ensure meant that the Serbs could not be at peace and after the death of Tito the nationalistic communist Milošević brought the autonomy that the two provinces had enjoyed to a de facto end.


Ethnic Mix – Autonomy

In Europe and America, following the collapse of the communist system, many were afraid that old national antagonism and hostilities would flare up into a source of new conflicts. While this did not happen between the Hungarians and their neighbours or between the Czechs and the Slovaks, indeed nor among the member republics of the former Soviet Union, the Yugoslav ethnic mosaic exploded in earnest, the tragic consequences of which are familiar to us all. According to many outside observers Yugoslavia’s disintegration was both unnecessary and damaging. This opinion is very reminiscent of the view that the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was unnecessary and damaging, bringing only suffering to its entire population. We have to realise, however, that although the countries established after WWI were of multiple nationality, they both declared and behaved themselves as individual nation states, provoking their respective nemesis with their intolerant policies towards ethnic minorities.

In the case of Yugoslavia not only the Albanian, Hungarian, Muslim and other minorities but also those nationalities who declared themselves state-formers were dissatisfied with their situation and, as such, made the most of the first given opportunity to break with the laws and rights which had existed on paper for decades. In fact the conflict of war was not caused by the Slovene and Croat declarations of independence, but rather by the mixed population. The Serbs living right in the heart of Croatia, encouraged by Belgrade, did not want to break away and declared their own independence. The military forces of what was in name Yugoslavia but which in truth were under Serb control, mobilised in September 1991 to support this demand.

When, in April 1991, the majority of the inhabitants of Bosnia had similarly declared their standpoint in favour of independence, Serbs living in parts both bordering and not bordering on Serbia repeatedly refused to accept this republic, leading to the almost four-year long military campaign littered with merciless war crimes, which could only be brought to a conclusion by the intervention of NATO forces in 1995. It is therefore clearly evident that the key to peace in the Balkans is finding a solution which would ensure the harmonious co-existence of the, in many places mixed, elsewhere different ethnic and religious communities living under the oppression of an intolerant majority.

The tragic events of the recent past prove that in the Balkans, but by the same token in the world as a whole, a community’s loyalty is linked primarily not to the state but rather to their ethnic minority, their language and their religion. Whosoever wants to forge a melting pot from the Balkans’ multi-coloured ethnicity will find an explosive mixture which can blow up all too easily. The French ideal of a centralised nation state cannot be established (at the most with genocide, resettlements and, in the best case, with mass exchanges of inhabitants), but neither is the multiethnic society promoted by the Americans feasible, or at least not for the time being. The international community and the vast majority of public opinion rejected the idea of even the slightest modifications to the borders, although it is beyond doubt that, under the present circumstances, the Serbs would gladly accept the annexation of Northern Kosovo and the Eastern parts of Bosnia in exchange for abandoning their claims for the greater part of Kosovo. The alternative and seemingly more practical solution is regionalism, or the creation of cantons.

It is evident following the Croatian War, Bosnia and Kosovo that today minorities can be neither assimilated, nor expelled or slaughtered. They want to live on their ancient lands according to their own customs, sending their children to schools where they can be taught in their own mother tongue, governed by leaders they elect from amongst themselves. This established form of local democracy, of self-government is the Greek word autonomy; the main two forms and solutions thereof being the regional (canton, county or province) or personal principle where, independent of permanent residence, a community creates an organisation, for example, along the lines of church denominations. Personal or individual rights, for the observance of which no established guarantee was provided, did not satisfy the ethnic minorities who insisted on their national traditions which they rightly felt were threatened. As there was always one group who was the victim of discrimination, be it by origin or religion, the only remedy could be to protect the rights of the group.

The benefits of limited independence and internal self-determination or home rule may be demonstrated by a number of current European examples. In Western Europe, since WWII, most countries have turned to decentralisation, the vertical sharing of power, the path of shifting it to lower levels of administration. This process has significant political and economic advantages in so far as it reduces the regional, partly ethnic and partly historical, tensions and many previously disadvantaged areas have prospered economically under such internal autonomy. The Flemish region of Belgium constitutes one of the most spectacular, albeit less well-known, examples. At the time of Franco’s dictatorship, Spain’s Catalans and Basques could not even use their own languages. They were the sworn enemies of the government, but after the democratic revolution they gained their local autonomy and for the most part the old hostilities have ceased. Provinces which had until then lagged behind have evidenced unparalleled boom, thereby preserving the unity of the Hispanic state. It may be stated that these diverse self-governments at various levels have become characteristic of the western half of Europe and, as such, we can speak with justification of a Europe of regions and autonomies.

The purpose of autonomy is to bring an end to waning, decline and despair; to encourage people to remain in their native land and to promote prosperity; in other words the preservation of peace and calm. This serves the interests of majority and minority alike. I can list examples of autonomies which are working well: the Åland Islands, South Tyrol, Catalonia and most recently Scotland and Wales. There are even smaller groups concerned, less well-known cases, too, like the autonomy of the German community, a few tens of thousand people in Belgium or Denmark. The Canadian example also shows that the separation of the British and French ethnic minorities and the latter’s provincial autonomy can above all keep the country together as one. The Swiss canton system has for centuries safeguarded the peaceful co-existence of Germans, French, Italians and Rethoromans living within the Swiss confederation.


The Balkan situation today also proves the need for autonomy, or rather that without autonomy there will not be peace in this region, at best just the silence of the grave. Arnold Toynbee, the great historical philosopher of the previous century proved himself too good a prophet when in 1915 he said that primitive peoples will destroy, will wipe out their minorities, while civilised peoples will gather signs of the satisfaction of minorities. How did the Central and South-Eastern European countries fare according to Toynbee’s criteria?

Today European integration is no longer a utopia but rather an operating reality; sooner or later we will reach that point already realised in Central Europe 100 years ago, namely to have a common currency and transparent, hardly perceptible borders. For the ethnic mosaics, autonomy’s most secure framework is not the centralised state declared by itself as national, but rather a Europe where the borders are open, movement is free, capital flows freely but the nationalities stay steadily even if they are spread out over eight countries. For the Hungarians this seems to be the only solution but for the Albanians, Serbs, Croats and Romanians, living outside their homeland such an arrangement can also be attractive. The only question is when the homeland itself will be prepared to hand over to its own internal minorities what they are demanding for their compatriots living outside their borders.


* Geographically speaking, the Balkans denote the Dinaric Alps, the Balkan highlands and the large European peninsula lying to their south; as such, Croatia and Romania do not belong to this area but in today’s European sense of the word both are considered as parts of the concept of the Balkans. From time to time, with a certain pejorative edge, Hungary has also been included in this category. Historically speaking, close relations have existed between Hungary and the Balkans and the situation in the same today.