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Are the Balkans Connected? When and How?

Maria Todorova

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1Connection is an all-encompassing concept: humans are intrinsically somehow connected to each other. Circulation, which is the movement of connected entities, is omnipresent. Even in the most isolated village, women and men are connected and circulate by marriage and labor, food circulates, words circulate; the difference is simply the size and amount of circulation but not circulation itself. Thus, unless we qualify connectivity, it is meaningless. Are the connections friendly or antagonistic? War, for example, is a most intimate connection and in cases when it does not annihilate, it results in conquest and lays the foundation for further contact. This is the genealogy of all empires, even if short-lived: think of Alexander the Great and the deep trace of Hellenism over an enormous territory. In friendly connections or encounters, are we speaking of economic ones (through common labor, trade, or non-commercial exchange), social ones (through institutions, education, law, the army), demographic ones (through colonization, ethnic mixture, ethnic cleansing, or intermarriage), or cultural ones (art, music, architecture, cuisine), including religion? Who connects? Whose interest is to connect? Who are the winners and losers of connectivity? And as we are speaking of “Connected Balkans,” are we talking of inter-connections within the region, or the Balkans as a unit connected to the outside world? As we well know, the two are most often incompatible, given the respective geo-political configurations: think of the fate of attempts at Balkan Federation or the competing bickering to attract the patronage of hegemonic powers. Connection, thus, is a category which has to be carefully analyzed and specified, and I will show that logically one can argue both for and against connectivity.

2And then comes the category Balkan. For the modern period – from the nineteenth century on – it is more or less delineated: the southeast corner of Europe, consisting mostly of successor states to the former Ottoman Empire. Based on this criterion, one can argue for their connection. But if we go back in time, it is not so easy to establish long-term connectivity. How do we make sense of our region in history? Balkan and Southeast Europe are elements of two different cartographic taxonomies, even as they are used interchangeably, and here I am using them as synonyms. “Balkan” is the older of the two names/terms, although as designations/concepts of the peninsula, both stem from the nineteenth century. The term Balkan has a number of manifestations that can be grouped into three categories. At its simplest, and first level, it is a name: the name of a mountain documented from the fifteenth century, but only later, in the nineteenth century, becoming the designation of a region, as well as of the political entities within. It is also used as a personal name. Second, Balkan is employed as metaphor, mostly, but not exclusively, negative. Third, the Balkans can be approached through a scholarly category of analysis, the notion of historical legacy; and I argue that this is a fruitful way to think about connectivity in the past.

For Balkan connectivity

  • 1 Lefebvre Henri, The Production of Space, Oxford, Blackwell, 1991.
  • 2 Harvey David, “Space as a Key Word,” in Noel Castree and Derek Gregory (eds), David Harvey: A Criti (...)
  • 3 The argument has been laid out fully in the last chapter and afterword to the second edition of Tod (...)

3The Balkan region can be conceptualized as a space in the sense used by Henri Lefevre, as material space and its representation, as well as the spaces of representation (i.e. the emotions and meanings incorporated into everyday practices).1 Even more helpful is the tripartite division of David Harvey in an absolute space (representing the pre-existing and immoveable grid amenable to standardized measurement), relative space (dependent upon the frame of reference), and relational space.2 Relational space holds that there is no such thing as space outside of the time-specific processes that define it, and that it is impossible to disentangle space from time. The notion of historical legacy is aligned to this relational space and is intimately intertwined with the character of the Balkans as a concrete historical, not simply geographic region. It is a space-time entity. While the theoretical argument cannot be developed here,3 suffice it to say that thinking in terms of historical legacies and periods, characterized by simultaneous, overlapping, and gradually waning effects, allows for an emphasis on the complexity and plasticity of the historical process. In this case any region (or cultural area) is approached – no longer as a static territorial entity – but as a complex palimpsest of differently shaped entities and different cultural spaces. This shift not only exposes the porosity of internal frontiers, but questions the absolute stability of external ones.

  • 4 Not only the three monotheistic religions with their different denominations, sects, and orders, bu (...)

4Some of the periods and legacies of our region have been synchronic or overlapping, others consecutive or completely segregated. For example, one could speak of synchronic and overlapping periods by pointing to the late Roman, Byzantine, and early Ottoman empires. Until the sixteenth century, there was an almost complete spatial coincidence between the spheres of influence of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, both in Europe and in Asia Minor. After the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire expanded its space in North Africa and elsewhere, but in Southeast Europe both the space of the historical periods and that of the legacies are coincidental. Another example could be the period of great migrations from Central Asia with numerous political legacies and the social legacy of semi-nomadism, which peaked in the fourth and fifth centuries, and the spurts of which were felt until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The same goes for the synchronic workings of the whole variety of different religious systems,4 both as legacies and as ongoing processes.

5On the other hand, caesura between periods, with little if any overlap between legacies is found, for example, between the Hellenistic period of the 4th century BCE and the communist period of the 20th century. There is some exception to this, however, when later periods have made use of the historic artifacts of an earlier period for purposes of legitimation. For another example of different spaces in which the Balkan region has been involved, one can point to two periods and legacies: on the one hand, the Roman Empire, which included Southeast Europe in a space stretching from the British Isles to the Caspian and Mesopotamia (but excluding much of Northern and Central Europe), and, on the other hand, the period and legacy of communism, which involved only part of Southeast Europe in a space encompassing the whole of Eastern Europe, and stretching through the Eurasian landmass to Central Asia (or including even China in some counts), not to speak of the global sphere (if Cuba is added). In principle, however, legacies are overlapping, and they fade away in intensity with the passage of time. These legacies exert their influence in different spheres of social life: economic, demographic, cultural, and so on, but they are by nature political (or at least we define them through a political entity). Of the political legacies which have shaped the southeast European peninsula as a whole (the period of Greek antiquity, Hellenism, Roman rule, etc.), two can be singled out as crucial until the nineteenth century. One is the millennium of Byzantium with its profound political, institutional, legal, religious, and general cultural impacts. The other is the half millennium of Ottoman rule that gave the peninsula its name and established the longest period of political unity it had experienced. Not only did part of Southeast Europe acquire a new name during this period; it has been chiefly the Ottoman elements, or the ones perceived as such, which most invoke the current stereotype of the Balkans. And therefore, in the narrow sense of the term, sticking to its name, the Balkans, in my view, are the Ottoman legacy and should be confined to it. In practice, however, research of the region moves deeper in time – as well as ahead. Balkan institutes encompass research in archaeology, Greek and Roman antiquity, the Byzantine period, the medieval states of Southeast Europe, and so on. Equally, most textbooks of the Balkans begin from antiquity and often from prehistory, implicitly suggesting that there was unity of a long durée. The crux of the matter lies within this fallacy.

Against Balkan connectivity

6In the broad sense of the term, therefore, the Balkans/Southeast Europe emerge as a complex palimpsest of consecutive legacies, that have territorially included it in different mega-regions, from prehistory until today, as well as in different social and cultural spaces, but not necessarily matching the regional demarcation. We are projecting back in time the modern understanding of the Balkans/Southeast Europe. By doing this, we are doing exactly what national/nationalist historiographies are doing: appropriating territories and claiming straight continuity from times immemorial. We are practicing methodological nationalism, while pretending to do global, transnational history in elucidating connectivity. The territory, of course, is the same, and it is indeed connected (just as anything is connected), but is it the “Balkans” that are connected? Was there ever a unity before the nineteenth century?

  • 5 Gimbutas Marija, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images, Berkele (...)
  • 6 For example, the cultures/settlements of Sesclo (roughly 8-7000 BCE), Turdaș-Vinča (6-4000 BCE), Ka (...)

7To take archaeology, what Marija Gimbutas has named the Old (pre-Indo-European) Europe or Danubian culture,5 shared common characteristics typical of the neolithic period everywhere. But beyond that the archaeological cultures are named after a settlement and do not encompass the peninsula as a whole, although many connect with territories in Central or Eastern Europe, or in Asia Minor.6 Of course, archaeology, because of its materiality even more than textual history, has served primarily national projects, but serious practitioners point at larger cultural clusters regardless of political borders.

8Speaking of borders – today it is fashionable to treat them as contact zones, which is of course, not wrong: borders are porous, they are there to be breached and violated. Unlike their relative permanence today, in the medieval period they were constantly shifting, despite the fact that today’s nation states look at these frontiers in their greatest expansion as permanent templates of the national projects. But borders also – and this is their primary function – are there to disengage, to divide, and to isolate. They have been more or less successful in this, including today: walls are being built not only in Trump-loving America, but actively around Fortress Europa.

9The greatest illustration of relative isolation is the persistence well into the twentieth century (and even today) of linguistic (and dialectal) diversity. This has been true of Europe as a whole, but even more strongly in Eastern Europe and the Balkans which have lacked long-term political stability. Normative national languages were shaped gradually and with fierce disputes and compromises in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and practically always under the aegis of the nation state. Connectivity deepens in the modern period with the advent of technology – railways, telegraph, print capitalism, and today’s social media. But do they necessarily create an imagined community? Yes, print capitalism and social media are a prerequisite, but they can equally divide. It is only with the national polity (through the army, school, centralized propaganda) that the imagined can percolate deep into society, and even this should not be exaggerated.

In lieu of conclusion

  • 7 Lotman Yuri, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture, London, Tauris, 1990.

10I would like to address the methodological problem of “whither Balkan studies”? Is the region to be approached as part of a universal, if not entirely homogenizing and singular modernity, or in terms of alternative or multiple modernities? At each intersection one should carefully weigh the losses and tradeoffs. The universal idiom does, indeed, open the field, serving as a necessary and welcome stimulant; and it is the only medium for genuine comparative research. But it comes with a price, what Youri Lotman described as semiotic inequality.7 The award of the uniqueness approach is the embedding of a greater cognitive value in the object of study, but this intellectual autarchy comes at the price of isolation and parochialism. Inevitably methodological excesses in one direction will engender a reactive pull in the other direction. Finally, the discipline in and of itself will not resolve the oscillation between the two heuristic approaches. It is the political conjuncture that is the breeding ground for the dichotomy. The Sonderweg discussion in German historiography accompanied the unresolved problem of Germany’s acceptance within Europe since the nineteenth century. Once this was achieved in practice, the matrix of German history ceased to be explained in terms of Sonderweg and recent interpretations of German history see it as a version of the general current of European history, pointing to common features – in a word, normalizing it. This is beginning very slowly for the Balkans. A positive step in this direction are projects that undertake comparisons across national borders, although the more ambitious and better executed ones are doing it solely within the East European realm, whereas the ones that venture across the East-West divide or even across continents, are still hesitant. But as long as the Balkans are not accepted on an equal footing in the larger European (and global) framework, as long as the real economic, institutional, and other inequalities between West and East European academia persist, the ontological inequality cannot be broken by mere academic efforts.

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1 Lefebvre Henri, The Production of Space, Oxford, Blackwell, 1991.

2 Harvey David, “Space as a Key Word,” in Noel Castree and Derek Gregory (eds), David Harvey: A Critical Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006, p. 70-93.

3 The argument has been laid out fully in the last chapter and afterword to the second edition of Todorova Maria, Imagining the Balkans, New York, Oxford, 2009.

4 Not only the three monotheistic religions with their different denominations, sects, and orders, but also other systems and folk religions.

5 Gimbutas Marija, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982.

6 For example, the cultures/settlements of Sesclo (roughly 8-7000 BCE), Turdaș-Vinča (6-4000 BCE), Karanovo and Gumeniţa (5000 BCE), Ezero (4-3000 BCE), the latter serving as the link with the later Kurgan (or Steppe) culture identifying the proto-Indo European homeland in the northern Pontic steppe.

7 Lotman Yuri, Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture, London, Tauris, 1990.

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Maria Todorova, « Are the Balkans Connected? When and How? »Balkanologie [En ligne], Vol. 18 n° 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Maria Todorova

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

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