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Darques R., 2017, Mapping Versatile Boundaries. Understanding the Balkans, Springer, 322 p.

Fabien Jeannier

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1This book comes out of the necessity to address two specific shortcomings regarding Balkan Studies. First, geography is a much-neglected dimension of that particular field of studies, resulting in a very limited corpus of research, particularly on the issue of borders. Second, the geography of the Balkans is usually dealt with in “exotic” languages that are inaccessible to the majority of people. As a matter of fact, the complex issues addressed in this research are written in English and are therefore accessible to the wider scientific community.

2This is a very ambitious book, whose broad aim is to “disentangle” the highly complex issue of borderlands in the Balkans and their associated historically deeply rooted instability from the myths, misconceptions and inaccuracies or mistakes they are associated with. To do so, the author combines the use of GIS databases and remote sensing technology with field work. It is the result of a very long-standing interest for the area and of more than twenty years of patient data collection and database building, using the latest technology whenever possible. There is no doubt that Régis Darques has an intimate knowledge of the area which he has extensively travelled. Needless to add that he is proficient in most of the languages of the countries covered by his research. This is undoubtedly a remarkable feat. But, more importantly, it has been instrumental in helping him deal effectively with the numerous challenges of carrying out research in the Balkans and have access to first-hand data.

3In this book the author provides all the appropriate and relevant evidence to make his point: boundaries and borders in the Balkans are extremely versatile: “new states regularly upset spatial balances” (p. 10), making “the status of centrality and remoteness […] extremely versatile” (p. 10). Borders and boundaries directly determine the nature of heartlands and have a profound impact on the demographic development of the borderlands, which obviously seriously questions the idea of a borderless world – at least in that part of the globe.

4The first chapter defines the goals, method and philosophy. The author proposes to unravel the complexities and ubiquity of the (beautiful and versatile) Balkan borderlands: “Borders and boundaries permeate all aspects of society. Not only do they define landscapes, but they also impregnate mindsets” (p. 2). Régis Darques stresses the bad reputation of borderlands (p. 3) and reminds us that in Greece as well as in other Balkan states, land and people are constantly under fire: “Nationalist fevers promote martyrdom on all sides. Political opponents and ethnic minorities are not tolerated, they have to comply. When too much pressure is applied, or when “rebels” prefer to keep standing positions, exile is the only alternative to detention. Just like land, families are hurt and divided” (p. 5). In such a context, we should not forget that every citizen is first and foremost a soldier (p. 5).

5It is important to point out that Régis Darques defends a committed position on the purpose of geography and the importance of sound and clear methodology: “When data mining and processing are properly mastered, the distinction between opinion and evidence becomes clearer” (p. 8). His overall objective is to “[fill] the gaps left by decades of government -– and self-censorship and [save] entire regions from the oblivion to which they had been confined. Out of this, hopefully [he could] expect to help change stereotypes” (p. 19). To do so, his research aims to release geography from national frameworks and to address borders and boundaries as ordinary objects. As a matter of fact, the author promotes “a definition of geography that does not consider maps as optional inputs/ outputs of knowledge production systems” (p. 7). He aims at exposing complexity, “develop[ing] unorthodox research strategy”, using quantitative analysis, GIS, remote sensing techniques “as effective means to address land issues” (p. 8). As a result of this scientific stance, the book “lies at the interface of different scientific disciplines”, while being firmly rooted in spatial reality. This is the reason why the author had to cope with the numerous practical difficulties of studying borderlands and land confines, margins and backcountries, “where landscapes are silent” and where “uncooperative administrations and closed lips” make research very difficult to carry out. It is quite an understatement to point out that he came across a fair number of political, administrative, military and technical obstacles. In the end, the book lives up to expectations, providing a huge number of original maps, some of which are absolutely stunning. However, we would have appreciated some of them to be larger, to adequately display the results of the research.

6In the second chapter the author develops his approach of field work. It is obvious that exploring the Balkans is the best possible way of overcoming myths and achieving demystification. He shows that the frequency and variability of paths are key concepts in understanding the effective limits of mobility – the territorial rootedness of the Balkans is best expressed in slowness and duration (p. 22-25). In a very lively description drawn from personal experience, the author reminds us that it takes an awful lot of time to travel across the Balkans because of the old transport networks, despite recent improvements, or the numerous boundaries that have been created over the past two decades.

7The first turning point in the making of the political map is the Balkans War and the First World War which resulted in the complete restructuring of the peninsula. The second major turning point is the decade between 1990 and 2000, with the complete collapse of the communist regimes and the Yugoslav Wars. They led to deep geographic changes with the proliferation of boundaries, whether for large states or microstates, with their own characteristics deeply influenced by local, historical, economic, environmental and topographic specificities. As for the number of border crossing points, they dramatically rose from 54 in 1968 to 273 in 2013.

8The author produces a very detailed analysis (p. 25-33) of the evolution of boundaries and paths/ checkpoints between the Balkan countries, informed by a close look at each country’s specific circumstances. He unravels the sometimes contradictory/ paradoxical effects of the political changes that have occurred in the Balkans since 1990, whether they are the result of opening or closing processes. We couldn’t agree more with his assertion that “the Balkans are a particularly tricky issue” (p. 33)! In the last part of the chapter, the author’s personal recollections of numerous field visits in all the Balkan countries and their borderlands (p. 34-48), where ruined buildings and stolen lives are common destiny (p. 37), remind us that field work has “an irreplaceable value to our understanding of local atmospheres” (p. 34).

9The third chapter investigates the weakening of boundaries in the Balkans – “a historical singularity” and a regional specificity: “The division of land and people is much more characteristic of the region than any official speech will ever admit” (p. 52-53). We are presented with a clear and useful historical perspective on the reasons why we don’t understand countries which have suffered from huge upheavals and revolutions, the opening of borders being a huge one in demographic and territorial restructuring terms.

10One of the major scientific inputs of the book is the building of a GIS database of all the boundaries/ borders that have existed in the peninsula since 1800 from scratch. Ultimately, this is another way of unravelling and clarifying the concept of balkanisation, whose widely-accepted definition (“geopolitical situations that become unstable because of intricate and mutually unsatisfied territorial claims of several neighbouring states. The word is commonly applied in a metaphorical sense to any land submitted to spatial division, mainly drawn forth by ethnic and confessional communities fighting for their independence, whatever form this latter would take” [p. 55]) might well be, in the end, rather inaccurate and unsatisfying.

11It is obviously crucial to point out that this had never been achieved before, for practical reasons which made such an enterprise a considerable challenge (p. 58-59): policies of national military institutes, diverging mapping systems, limited or forbidden data dissemination, land access interdiction, the potential political risk of such an enterprise at national level, the inaccuracies, to say the least, of world leading providers of GIS software and databases. The author shows very convincingly that this results in a large discrepancy between maps and ground-based demarcations (p. 64-65), leaving people in the confusion of living in blurred borderlands, or fuelling numerous and serious litigations over land between countries (p. 65). Consequently, the existing border mappings lack consistency, are riddled with geometric inaccuracies and rely on outdated data, leading to huge amounts of uncertainty: “For two centuries, continuously roaming boundaries have sparked a structural instability with major impacts on local development and governance policies” (p. 57); “Civil societies are profoundly affected, triggering nationalist feelings, disinterest for political issues, forced deportations, demographic changes, dereliction/ decay of border cities. Borderlands are fuzzy zones that cover wide areas. Frontiers vary in space and confuse minds altogether” (p. 73). It is actually striking to realise that numerous international treaties have been signed relying on maps riddled with mistakes!

12In the 20th century, new technologies have enabled better mapping and (some) mistakes to be corrected. However, “with the emergence of nation-states, topographic maps gain a new confidential status proportional to their efficiency. Mistakes might be public. Accurate information shall be kept secret” (p. 76) – hence the need for this sort of in-depth work on borders and boundaries: “Such a statement gives credence to the arguments developed by Denis Wood who identifies the parallel emergence of modern state and cartography. Historically, mapping never aimed at reproducing some spatial reality. The entire process of mapmaking is dedicated to building the State rather than measuring land. In other words, mapping is a pure expression of an institutional power against political opposing forces. Not surprisingly, maps promote land integrity against any spatial fragmentation. Therefore, unorthodox political subsets are easily “erased” from pictures, the purpose of which is to tell the world how much each state applies its sovereignty up to the most remote districts” (p. 76).

13Chapter 4 explores the intricacies of the building up the GIS database – an extremely technical and time-consuming task! The first part examines the strategies, complexities and methodology of the building of a coherent, reliable and accurate GIS database (p. 81-90). It defines the spatial as well as temporal limits/ boundaries. We will note that 200 dates were eventually taken into account in the building of the database. Geocoding data was a very challenging process, as it had to deal with the ceaseless change of place names, among other challenges. It involved the selection of 120 maps to be geocoded (out of a corpus of 400). The objective was not to replicate hundreds of inaccuracies: “The respective positions of all borderlines recorded in the final geodatabase may thus be interpreted as best estimates.” Consequently, accuracy varies from one borderline to the other, which leads the author to contend that uncertainty is then a way of qualifying the differences between borderlines and borderlands (p. 90). This also leads him to establish a typology of boundaries, from legally international to semi-official (p. 91).

14The diachronic analyses show that “land fragmentation has eventually come to be measured” (p. 93). Boundaries of all kinds are aggregated over two centuries to bring evidence of the existence of the staggering figure of 50,000 kms of borders and boundaries between 1800 and 2015, for an extended area of 1 million square kilometres (see the stunning map p. 94). Boundaries are – or were – everywhere. They reveal the extreme complexity of the border issue in the Balkans and they raise the question of the existence of “regional” geographic units: “Panoptic and diachronic illustrations reveal a fragmentation that has very few equivalents in the world. Balkanisation is not an emphatic word used to depict a complicated political and territorial situation. The term qualifies a smashed up geographic body” (p. 93-94). This research provides evidence to expose local specificities that would have remained otherwise unseen and raises the issue of whether the boundary system alters the usual relationship between geography and territory. Is the standard centre-periphery model still valid in the Balkans? Is it still relevant to rely on the concepts of border mobility or ubiquity? Obviously, studying the Balkans implies to develop new approaches, far from the conventional views based on monolithic nations (p. 103).

15The database also allows the author to produce other graphic models of the peninsula, one of which is border resilience, to illustrate political and territorial instability (p. 108-116). Quite unexpectedly, one of the most interesting results is that the most stable boundaries are to be found in former Yugoslavia. It appears that internal boundaries often play a more essential structuring role than many outside boundaries submitted to constant changes. Stable boundaries are not always the most expected ones. Once again, this raises the question of a new “regional” geography, rather than a national one. And once more, it gives credence to the concept of uncertainty in in-between areas that serve as buffer zones and lands that are occupied by mixed populations.

16Measuring the average lifetime of a country’s borders leads to surprising conclusions. In the case of the Balkans, nation-states appear to be useless territorial references to explore the significance of borders and boundaries: “Local contingencies determine more efficiently state stability and territorial evolution than any fantasized [national] ‘fate’” (p. 116) as “[t]he political-territorial stability of nation-states seems to be completely disconnected from their measurable border resilience.” Bosnia-Herzegovina is a striking example (p. 116): although it is the last Balkan state to have achieved full independence (in 1995), it has the most long-standing reliable boundaries (157 years).

17Chapter 5 investigates the very much fragmented character of the border areas and the sedimentation of local borders. The aim is to focus on the specific impact of major territorial changes and contested borders at a local scale and the process of shifting boundaries. It is a map-based approach, exploiting old maps hardly known by anyone. The author develops six case studies: the international boundary in Rhodope and Thrace; the lands surrounding the lakes of Prespa and Ohrid, the border uncertainty in Montenegro and Southern Serbia; the Dalmatian far ends; the Black Sea coast and the Lower Danube and the marchlands of Banat. It shows that international diplomacy more than often collides with small local interests and that the settlement of boundaries is a very slow process.

18Régis Darques argues that intricacies and border fluctuations are fuelled by imperial and national forces. Boundaries are settled by various treaties of uneven importance and are the result of “constant interactions between neighbouring states, administrative regions and local communities” (p. 149). This explains why “a transnational approach was the only way to provide new insight into Balkan complexity without making the area an artificial patchwork of mutually ignoring lands”. Numerous ethnic and confessional communities live in the same border areas and make border settlement problematic. However, the author states that it is impossible to address ethnic-confessional issues on a systematic basis because the few statistical data available are truncated or biased and because of the divergent systems of collecting data in the different administrative units. Consequently, the Balkans are pervaded with countless “blind spots” and “in-between spaces” whose geographic features often withstand scrutiny.

19The sixth chapter shifts the investigation to borderlands. It stresses the need to define borderlands, where bandits, gunmen, soldiers and rural communities thrive, as well as to spatially qualify the impact of boundaries. As investigating the huge legal and military defence frameworks is inconceivable (getting access to reliable information is very difficult, partly for security reasons, partly because many documents from the communist era are not located or accessible), Régis Darques resorts to personal observation and field work. First, he details the example of the controlled areas in the North of Greece – depopulated buffer zones with a very slow economic activity. These “protected zones” under military control amounted to 16,200 sq. km in 1967 (roughly 12 % of the total surface of Greece). They have hugely suffered from the programmed underdevelopment of the land confines and the subsequent exacerbated centrality.

20Then the author develops the example of territorial defence systems in Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. The Iron Curtain set very specific contexts, creating huge buffer zones that could be 25 to 50 km large, which was the standard configuration alongside the Iron Curtain. In Albania, no less than 750,000 bunkers were built from the end of WWII to the 1980s to protect the border areas. As Albania is a very small country, it gradually became a universal land management principle. There are bunkers everywhere in Albania, which became a besieged citadel where only a tiny part in the centre of the country is excluded from the border areas, as is shown on the map page 173! “Land planning policies are often more determined by international agreements and/ or conflict than by deliberate choices. This is especially true for tiny states” (p. 176). The examples detailed in this chapter show that “microscale geography sometimes prevails over macroscale logic. From enclosure to opening and back to defensive fences, the “border game” seems unpredictable. This points to the importance of a deep historical analysis in assessing how local circumstances may eventually decide on international injunctions” (p. 178). Consequently, the mighty role played by militarisation and war cannot be avoided in any serious attempt to analyse geography and borders in the Balkans: “Mapping military areas and camps scattered across the Balkans would have been useful to complete the survey. Unfortunately, this ambition runs up against national security obstacles and is likely to remain unachieved. The idea comes up spontaneously to one’s mind: Almost everywhere in the Balkans, from remote rural districts to central cities, military fields pervade the environment. Who has never bumped into military “dead-ends” during a walk or driving excursion, within cities, in the middle of the countryside or next to a marvellous wooded area? Any border geography is also military -not war- geography to such an extent that we can say with R. Woodward that ‘military geographies are everywhere; every corner of every place in every land in every part of this world of ours is touched, shaped, viewed and represented in some way by military forces and military activities’. This statement is especially true in the Balkans” (p. 178).

21In the second part of the chapter, spatial simulations show that by combining borderland and linear boundaries, depending on the thickness of the borderland (10 – 20 – 40 kms) and the type of boundaries taken into account (2015 or all the boundaries between 1800 and 2015), the results are absolutely amazing. The most striking one is that 49 % of the Balkan total area can be defined as borderlands (according to the 2015 boundaries), or 88.9 % (considering historical maps and boundaries dating back to 1800), as is shown on the amazing map page 189.

22In order to produce a complete understanding of borders, chapter 7 exposes the use of spectral discrimination to visualise to what extent, how and why borders have fluctuated, exposing five case studies. Present-day landscapes tell an awful lot about the past and past landscapes. Thus, it is possible to grasp the singularity of borders. These case studies are informed by a very good and detailed grasp of historical specificities. Remote sensing imagery allows composite geographic frameworks to be explained and illustrated and highlights the (dreadful) impact of militarisation of land confines and borderlands on land use: “War provides the necessary conditions for generating spatial marginality. Peaceful times do not expunge the past but preserve what has been achieved” (p. 198). These analyses clarify complex systems influenced by geography and local circumstances. The great variety of case studies exposed here suggests that “there are only exceptions to the rules governing the future of border areas” (p. 234). The whole process reduces knowledge uncertainties while revealing unexpected situations that deeply affect them.

23The last chapter deals with the human variable of boundaries/ borders fluctuations and leads us to a demographic analysis of borderlands, where “[p]opulation dynamics are a complex combination of opposing forces. One cannot understand Balkan demography without considering the relentless political cycles of local uprisings – fierce military repression” (p. 237). Wars have terrible consequences on local communities. This “destroying machinery” has been running for decades, involving huge population displacements and/ or exodus.

24Régis Darques built a GIS tool capable of providing an objective basis to stormy debates – the assessment of the human cost of versatile boundaries and political upheavals in the Balkans. This ambitious project exemplifies the scientific potential of the connection between field work and statistical analyses, although it entails quite a number of methodological obstacles to overcome – it is primarily a matter of equivalence and scales and recombination of data (p. 239). The case study is the Greek-Bulgarian interface, a small area at the crossroads of Eastern Macedonia and Rhodope (p. 240-250). The analysis involves the evolution of demography, showing that historical events have consequences on the settlement of people: demographic data informs long-term demographic patterns and shows that demographic imbalances, which have to be understood along with the fluctuation of borders, are persistent. Demographic data emphasises the long-term consequences of fluctuating borders and the political, administrative, military responses on population. It shows that responses and policies and time scales are often different and account for the (tragic) fate of countless refugees or immigrants and displaced populations who remain stuck on one side or the other of the border.

25This last chapter also exposes the singular cases of nine border places which have experienced the demographic consequences of such an unfortunate location (p. 282-290). What is at stake are the sudden losses of population, destructions, displacements and ethno-confessional issues. “Most Balkan settlements impacted by border fluctuations in the past centuries confront the face thorny problems. Upstream, no measurement tool can help unravel identities and territories; downstream, political demographic crises lead to disastrous outcomes that escape any survey”. “Recent border hardening or softening cannot be understood without addressing past legacies” (p. 291), one of which is the mobility of people – a long-standing way of life in the Balkans.

26This chapter contends that demographic implosion is underway in the Southern Balkans as regional imbalances are worsening. European cohesion programmes and cross-national integration policies appear to have (very) limited effects. Territorial discrepancies are worsening because lands and territories are not abstract entities and should not be dealt with as such. This work shows that the very careful collection and processing of data may lead to very different, not to say divergent, results and interpretations from official organisations. It also points out that statistical indications are more than often devised in order not to allow international comparisons. The author eventually argues that the demographic transition in the region is yet to be completed.

27The final lines of the book question the issue of centralities in Balkan countries. As a result of the constantly shifting boundaries, huge cities have developed – with serious planning problems – at the expense of peripheral regions and borderlands: “Constantly “inventing” borders not only creates land fragmentation, but also causes disorders which are hard to handle afterwards” (p. 307), leading to deep distrust of central powers/ public authorities. This raises the question of the importance of mafias which benefit from the denied territoriality of borderlands and develop as counterpowers of weakened central powers/ nation states.

28Régis Darques boldly contends that “[a]gainst all odds, geography still matters” (p. 309). And so do borders and borderlands. There can’t really be any better demonstration. This very dense book seeks to fill a major geographic shortcoming – empirical knowledge about the Balkans and the so-called balkanisation process, starting from the very simple acknowledgement that maps are nothing more than the results of political injunctions and Western diplomacy. It also highlights the relevance of promoting a holistic analysis of border issues. The skilful use of powerful digital tools, including remote sensing technologies, is meant as a way to confront the dominant methods and conclusions in geography today (where ethnography, sociology and political science tend to analyse lands and territories as abstractions, rather than material objects). The author demonstrates that in-depth analyses informed by a clearly exposed and sound methodology comprising an array of digital tools that are skilfully used to create a thorough and cogent vision of boundaries and borders in the Balkans make it possible to put forward solid evidence that clearly challenges existing conclusions.

29The book convincingly and successfully documents the complexity of domestic situations in the Balkans and the difficulty to govern fragmented lands. It bridges the gap between classic cartography and remote sensing techniques while emphasising the ever-present concept of uncertainty in the geography of the region. The skilful mix of the potential of hard science with social science shows the way ahead and makes it a must-read for anyone interested in the geography of the Balkans. It certainly invites to a wider reflection and renewed perspectives on boundaries, borders and borderlands in other parts of the world. This book makes a strong case for applied geographical science, deeply rooted in spatial reality, where the human dimension is informed by field work and where “insignificant anonymous places shall be brought to the forefront” (p. 18). Although it deals with very complex details, it is certainly not completely irrelevant to consider it as some sort of textbook for applied geography, and as such should be read by anyone interested in the study of boundaries, borders and borderlands.

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Fabien Jeannier, « Darques R., 2017, Mapping Versatile Boundaries. Understanding the Balkans, Springer, 322 p. », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Revue de livres, mis en ligne le 24 octobre 2019, consulté le 26 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Fabien Jeannier

Laboratoire ICTT, Avignon Université

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