Balkan Civilization – Similarity Is Not Synonymous with Cohesion

The Balkan civilization is difficult to apprehend on account of the negative connotations of the term balkanization. When endeavoring to understand the fragmentation that is the main characteristic, there are two obvious pitfalls: determinism of the natural environment and determinism of history and culture, including repeated violence between groups that are identified sometimes by lifestyle, sometimes by position with respect to political authority, and sometimes by a sense of ethnic, national, or religious belonging. What is left today of the social organization considered typical to the Balkans, after the sudden arrival of modernity imposed by the communist system (Greece excepted), and the upheavals of postcommunism?

Physical Diversity, Underpinning Human Diversity

The fragmented relief of the Balkan Peninsula is difficult to penetrate. Between tectonic plates, it is a geological mosaic with scattered deposits of rare polymetals. The relief divides the area into small regions: basins, gorges, large lakes, corridors (Vardar Morava and Maritsa), the enormous Dinaric karst area with its polje and caverns: these exceptional natural features produce small human units lacking easy communication with one another, and favoring withdrawal into representations of identity and stronghold status. Since invaders arrived up the valleys, the mountains were more densely settled than the plains, and this reversal of settlement patterns only disappeared during the twentieth century.

The peninsula is Mediterranean on its coastal fringes, while the interior is characterized by continental climate, with marked rainy seasons and high temperatures. There is severe erosion and long standing deforestation. Transhumance practices increase risks of flooding, and deposition reduces infiltration downstream, generating marshy plains that have long been infested with malaria. Irrigation in depressions has enabled intensive agriculture, favoring crops suited to hot climates which are the specialty of Bulgarian and Turkish farmers. Farming settlement was traditionally concentrated in the podgora area (piedmont). Here, villages of homogeneous ethnic and religious composition are juxtaposed, forming a diverse territorial mosaic. Because of the relief, crossroads and traffic corridors acquire fundamental strategic importance and localize cities, often of imperial origin: in the interior, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Skopje, or Plovdiv, and on the coasts, giving maritime access, Rijeka, Split, Durre?s, Athens, Thessalonica, Burgas, and Istanbul as the gateway to Asia. The geographical distribution of the centers and their terrestrial communication links give a fairly uniform mesh with no central pole.

The bimodal nature of settlement patterns – towns and cities on the natural traffic routes, scattered village settlements away from the roads – constitutes the hidden paradox of the Balkans, suspended between the potentialities of communication intersections and very real partitionings. The relatively similar structural patterns across the peninsula and the absence of a center phenomenon are obstacles to any integration process.

Social Systems: Permanence and Mobility, Villages, and Towns

The Balkans are readily viewed as museums of archaism and ideal hunting ground for ethnologists and folklore enthusiasts. Within Europe, they stand apart on account of social structures that have remained markedly organized around the extended family and the pre eminence of men. Family and religious celebrations, which are widely observed, punctuate the community year. Repeated changes in border demarcation, displacement of groups to form peasant soldier colonies on the imperial marches, as well as pastoral movements over large distances from mountain to plain (Vlaks), traveling traders, and massive returns (Greeks from Anatolia) have all contributed to forming a social relationship with space that carries the mark of mobility. Network relationships and the sense of belonging to a group have the upper hand on belonging to a territory – across distance, solidarity, whether empathetic or economic, plays an essential part. Contemporary economic migration perpetuates this link, known as the diaspora culture. The construction of a state based civic identity is hindered by its existence. The energy expended in removing all trace of previous occupiers to discourage any return is a sign of it.

This characteristic is shared by rural and urban populations alike, even if the latter are of more cosmopolitan composition. There are, on the one hand, ports and trading towns and cities on the Mediterranean, which are better interconnected than with the hinterland (Dubrovnik Ragusa). On the other hand, there are the cities that the Ottoman power developed into a network supporting the garrisons, administrations, and craft activities (Sarajevo, Skopje, Thessalonica, and Plovdiv). Their populations were multiethnic, as each trade was related to an ethnic group in a given quarter, with strong links from one city to another, which favored diasporatype identification. Only those cities that became capitals when national states were created (Sofia, Tirana, and even Athens) have been characterized by reference to national identity.

Religions: The Main Identity Substrate

Religious identity sets the Balkans apart in Europe and segments populations within the area. Although religion does not contribute any cultural determinism any more than the geographical environment or history, it is a major component of identity. Oriental Orthodox Christianity covers most of the peninsula. The Roman Catholic church has a foothold only in Slovenia and Croatia. The antagonism between the two branches of Christianity, which formed in the course of the first millennium, is used by historians to explain the moderate resistance toward the Turks of Byzantium, to avoid falling under the papal authority, felt to be more of a threat to identity than submission to the Ottoman Porte.

The orthodox religion has no supreme authority. The autocephalous organization of religion is the ancient matrix of the Balkan State. The Ottoman Empire increased the secular strength of the orthodox religion by entrusting the patriarchs with responsibility for the Christian communities, so that Greeks, Serbs, or Bulgarians were culturally more than religiously orthodox. Religious and political powers supported one another, sharing organic functions. Spiritual life became rooted in the numerous monasteries scattered across orthodox territory, which were very autonomous since they were not organized into orders. Thus the orthodox component has a paradoxical structure, whereby the theocratic model of the sociopolitical whole is manifested in a scatter of communities and territories.

Islam concerns around 8 million inhabitants: they are mainly native Balkan populations, Albanian, Slav (and later Rom) – its first feature. The second concerns location: the Islamic populations occupy the front zone between the Catholic and Orthodox areas, from the mountains of Bosnia (formerly a Bogomil zone) to Albania and Macedonia in the north, and also the Rhodope Mountains and the Dobruja district in Bulgaria. The third feature is the diversity of Balkan Islam, in particular the Bektachi group in Albania. There is some degree of organizational similitude between the two ecumens, Orthodox and Moslem, in particular the nonseparation of religion from politics, which deprives the present democratic construction of a previous experience of independent institutions.

When apprehended in this manner, the basis and configuration of Balkan culture yields complex geographical constructions, which belie the 'essentialist' representation that is often attached to the notion of culture.