Winston Churchill once commented that ‘the Balkans produce more history than they consume’. Indeed, the movement of invaders, settlers and traders back and forth across the region over the years has created an intricate – and complicated – patchwork of cultures, societies, religions, ethnicities and conflicts.

Tribes, Colonies & Empires

The region hasn’t been controlled by one government since the Roman Empire. Farming came to the area around 6000 BC, and was well established by 4000 BC. By 700 BC the local population grew as increasing amounts of iron tools, horses and chariots helped spread trade routes. By the time Celtic tribes drove south and mixed with native Illyrian and Thracian tribes, there were Greek colonies along the coast of Albania and Croatia. Evidence of Illyrians (ancestors of modern-day Albanians) in the Balkans dates to 1200 BC; some areas of Albania have been occupied by their descendants ever since.

The Greeks were also early occupants of the Balkans; whether family groups joined extant populations or whether armies of conquerors invaded is not known, but it is clear that Greek influences infiltrated the region early on. From the 2nd century BC, the influence of the Roman Empire began encroaching, particularly into the western part of the region, while Greek influences remained dominant in the east. The first division of the region can be dated to AD 395, when Emperor Theodosius split the unwieldy Roman Empire into an eastern, Greek-influenced half ruled from Byzantium (later Constantinople) and a western, Latin-influenced half ruled from Rome. This division laid the first fault line between the eastern and western churches, even before the original Serbs and Croats had settled in. The Roman Empire was weakened by economic crises and plagues around the time it was divided, and Slavic invaders plundering the region, giving rise to the ‘barbarian’ dark age in the Balkans. The western part of the empire was significantly weakened, but Greek civilisation survived in sections of the eastern part, and many Slavs were Hellenised. Both Roman and Greek influences remain today; the Romans introduced roads and vineyards and constructed towns and fortresses, while the existence of Greek communities in parts of southern Albania today testifies to the endurance of Greek civilisation.

The Coming of the Slavs

The Avar, Goth and Hun invasions weakened Roman defences along the Danube so much that Slav tribes (farmers and herders originally from eastern Ukraine) were able to move south of the river during the 5th and 6th centuries. Two distinct southern Slavic groups were discernable; one would eventually become Croatians and fall under Charlemagne in the 8th century, leading to the Catholicisation of Croatia and the eventual recognition of the Croatian state by the pope in 879. Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox influences of Constantinople prevailed over Slavic Serbs.

In the 9th century Christian monks such as Methodius and Cyril (the early namesake of the Cyrillic alphabet based on Byzantine Greek letters, which eventually became the alphabet of Serbian and Macedonian languages) began to evangelise the Slavs.

Another divide occurred in the same era that Cyril and Methodius were sharpening their quills. The Franks took over the northwest of the region and the Croats and Slovenes came under Western European cultural influence. The first independent Croatian kingdom appeared under Ban Tomislav in 924 and remained a distinct entity right through to the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to which it became attached.

In the rest of the region the Byzantine Empire was weakening militarily but still held a great deal of cultural influence. The first Serb principality was established under the Byzantine umbrella around 850, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that Stefan I Nemanja established the first fully independent Serbian kingdom. One of his sons, Stefan II, built Serbia into a stable nation, recognised as independent by the pope but still with religious ties to the Orthodox Church in Constantinople. Another son, Rastko, would go on to become St Sava. Many of Serbia’s great religious artworks date from this time, as artists combined Byzantine iconography with local styles. It is also this era that gave rise to a strong Serbian national identity. The most powerful of all Nemanjić kings, Stefan Dušan, was crowned in 1331 (after doing away with his father); he established the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate at Peć in western Kosovo, introduced a legal code and expanded the Serbian empire.

The Ottoman Era

The Seljuk Turks swept out of central Asia into the Byzantine heartland of Anatolia in the 11th century. Their successors, the Ottomans, established a base in Europe in 1354 and steadily increased their European territories over the next century. The Ottoman ‘victory’ (more of a draw, in fact) over the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389 completed the separation of the southern Slavs; the Catholic Croats remained beyond Turkish rule, while Orthodox Serbs and Macedonians were now under it. The Turks had conquered almost the entire region by 1500. The core of Montenegro remained independent under a dynasty of prince-bishops from their mountain stronghold at Cetinje. Suleyman the Magnificent lead the Ottoman charge, taking Belgrade in 1521 and pushing on as far as Vienna, besieged in 1529.

Over time, some communities (particularly in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo) adopted Islam. The reasons for the conversion are complex. For Albanians, conversion to Islam occurred gradually in a piecemeal fashion; a famous Albanian poet once said that the true religion of Albania is simply being Albanian. As late as 1900 there were families in central Albania who had Muslim names in public but used Christian names at home. In the mountainous north, some Albanian tribes remained Catholic, while their traditional rivals embraced Islam. Many Roma communities also converted to Islam.

Serbs kept the dream of independence alive through romanticising the hajduks (bandits) who had taken to the hills to raid Turkish caravans, and through epic poems retelling the betrayals that led to the end of their empire at the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje. Some Serbs moved to the shifting frontier region between the Catholic Austrians and the Turks, which more or less coincides with the modern border between BiH and Croatia. This stark mountain region became known as Krajina, meaning ‘borderland’. The Serbs of Krajina were under constant pressure to convert to Catholicism, another theme in Serbian identity.

Beyond the existence of Muslim communities throughout the region, almost five centuries of Ottoman control left marks. Some towns are distinctly Turkish, with strong Ottoman architectural influences. Turkish tastes infiltrated regional cuisines, with burek and Turkish coffee becoming Balkans staples, and various words were adopted into the local languages. A less tangible mark is that left on the national psyche, manifesting as both affinity to Turkey and conversely in pride at having resisted it over 500 years and numerous generations.

Ottoman Decline & Austro-Hungarian Control

By 1700 the Ottoman Empire was lagging behind the other great European powers. The Austrians pushed south and reconquered Croatia, and began eyeing territory further south. Over succeeding centuries, the once all-c­onquering Ottoman Empire failed to adjust to changes in the global economy. As Europe industrialised, the Balkans domains instead descended into corrupt agricultural fiefdoms, over which the empire had little direct control but from which it still demanded financial tribute. By the 1860s, the Ottoman sultans in Istanbul needed ever greater loans to fund their opulent courts and lavish harems; British and French bankers were all too happy to oblige, with juicy interest rates. But, with spiralling debt repayments to make, the empire’s peasants were taxed ever more harshly. Unrest spread. In 1873, the empire’s debts led to a widespread banking collapse. More than ever the authorities were tax hungry, yet the following year saw disastrous harvests. The result in 1875 and 1877 was a wave of Christian revolts, led initially by Bosnian peasants such as Mrkonjić, who would later become Serbian King Peter I. The Turkish backlash designed to stop the revolt was so brutal that sympathetic ‘brother’ Slav Tchaikovsky composed his famous Slavonic March as a sort of 19th-century Band Aid equivalent. International tempers rose. Serbia declared war on Turkey and suddenly the Bosnian revolts had snowballed into a Balkans-wide tangle of war that was widely known as the Great Eastern Crisis.

The crisis saw Turkey’s European forces crushingly defeated, notably through a resurgent Russia and an expanded, newly independent Bulgaria. But the egos of Europe’s other big powers had to be stroked. This meant that the eventual carve-up of Turkey’s European lands was achieved not on the battlefield but with the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, drawn up with staggering disregard for ethno-linguistic realities. The chairman, German Chancellor Bismarck, quaffed prodigious volumes of port wine to calm the pain of his shingles and hurried the proceedings along, anxious to start his summer holidays. As a counterweight to Russian power in Bulgaria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was persuaded to take military control of Bosnia in 1878, a decision that would alter Bosnia forever and ultimately lead to Austro-Hungary’s downfall.

The Rise of Yugoslavism & WWI

The bloody decline of Turkish power and the emergence of competing nationalisms gave rise to pan-Slavism – the idea of uniting Croatians, Serbians and Slovenians under one flag. Croatian bishop Josip Strossmayer was a strong proponent of pan-Slavism, and founded the Yugoslav Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1867. An independent Serbian kingdom gradually emerged over the 19th century, expanding from its early base around Belgrade. The Austro-Hungarian claim of Bosnia and competition between Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria for the remaining Ottoman territories in Albania, Macedonia and northern Greece intensified. Ethnic nationalism grew as competing powers manipulated identities and allegiances, particularly in Macedonia, where Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian struggles for expansion resulted in 40 years of rebellion, invasions and reprisals, culminating in the landmark Ilinden uprising of August 1903 and its brutal suppression two weeks later.

The First Balkan War in 1912 pushed the Turks back to Constantinople and forced them to concede Macedonia and Kosovo to Serbia. But the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians soon began fighting each other. The conflict spilled into the Second Balkan War of 1913, which drew in Romania and ended unsatisfactorily for all, though it did expand Serbian territory once more. Slavic movements were agitating for the union of Bosnia (controlled by Austria) with Serbia. In this climate, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Though the assassin was not connected to the Serbian government, this act trigged a domino effect of retaliation throughout Europe, beginning with the Austrian invasion of Serbia. WWI led to unimaginable loss of lives, and the weakened Serbia became an entity of the greater southern Slav Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – a pan-Slavic dream named ‘Yugoslavia’ in 1929. Albania also emerged as an independent state, ruled by the self-proclaimed king, Zog. Both countries were largely rural, Ruritanian dictatorships with very little industry. Neither regime would be able to resist the Italian and German invasions during WWII.


The Balkans stood between Hitler and Russia, presenting states in the region with two very unattractive choices: join or resist Nazism.

The fascist Croatian Ustaše fought communists and Serbs, the Germans fought communists and royalist Chetniks, and Albanian factions fought the Germans, the Italians and each other. The Germans had installed the far-right Croatian Ustaše party as leaders of the Independent State of Croatia, which included modern Croatia, BiH and parts of Serbia and Slovenia. The Ustaše’s brutality towards Serbs in particular was shocking even by Nazi standards; Ustaše attempts to convert Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism on pain of death and its systematic murder of Serbs, Jews, Roma and communists is said to have given rise to the term ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Determined Serbian resistance was met with brutal reprisals delivered on civilian populations; at one point the Nazi policy was to murder 100 Serbian civilians for every German killed. Two crucial resistance movements emerged; one was the Chetniks, led by Draža Mihailović, and the other was the pro-communist Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito. Conflict between the two groups and their common enemy, the Ustaše, resulted in civil war. Ultimately the latter galvanised the most support throughout the region, eventually winning British and Soviet support. Tito and Albanian communist party leader Enver Hoxha took the reins of the region and dispatched their rivals with bullets or sent them to prison camps. Around 10% of the region’s population perished during WWII.

Communism & Collectivisation

Yugoslavia and Albania were the only countries in Europe where communists took power without the assistance of the USSR’s Red Army. This gave communist-party leaders an unusual amount of freedom compared with other communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Yugoslav communist party was quick to collectivise agriculture, but by the late 1940s it faced stagnant growth and dwindling popularity. Fed up with interference from Moscow, Tito broke with Stalin in 1948. The collectivisation of land was reversed in 1953, and within a year most peasants had returned to farming independently. Reforms were successful and the economy was booming in the late 1950s. Albania’s leader, Hoxha, looked on Yugoslavia’s reforms with utter distaste and kept true to hard-line Stalinism. The Albanian communist party controlled every aspect of society – religion was banned during a Chinese-style cultural revolution in the late 1960s and the country became a communist hermit kingdom.

Tito’s brand of socialism was different. Almost uniquely, Yugoslavs were able to travel freely to Western countries as well as within the Eastern Bloc. In the 1960s Yugoslavia’s self-management principles contributed to a struggle between the republics within it. Richer republics such as Croatia wanted more power devolved to the republics, while Serbia’s communist leaders wanted more centralised control. The Albanian majority in Kosovo started to protest against Serbian control in the 1960s, which began the long cycle of riots, violence and repression that lasted until the UN took control of the territory in 1999. Ripples of tension continue today. There was a saying that the Yugoslav dream began in Kosovo and would end in Kosovo; it seems that this has turned out to be true.

Things Fall Apart

After Tito’s death in 1980 the federal presidency rotated annually among the eight members of the State Presidency. The economy stalled as foreign debt mounted, and rivalries between the constituent republics grew. Serbian communist-party boss Slobodan Milošević exploited tensions by playing up disturbances between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians in Kosovo, allowing him to consolidate his power base.

As the democracy movement swept Eastern Europe, tensions grew between central powers in Belgrade, dominated by Milošević, and pro-democracy, pro-independence forces in the republics. Slovenia declared independence in 1991 and after a short war became the first republic to break free of Yugoslavia. Croatia soon followed, but the Serbs of the mountainous Krajina region set up their own state. Macedonia became independent without much trouble, but when Bosnia followed suit the country fell into a brutal civil war between the three main communities: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The war continued until 1995 and cost 200,000 lives.

The Dayton Peace Accords divided the country into a federation, awarding 49% to the Serbs and 51% to a Croat-Muslim federation. In the same year the newly strengthened Croatian army conquered the breakaway Serbs’ regions. Meanwhile, in rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) the worst hyperinflation in history occurred between 1993 and 1995, when prices grew by five quadrillion per cent; think of the number five with 15 zeroes after it. Albania’s communist regime was toppled in 1992, and the country descended into a free-market vacuum of anarchy; peasants stole animals and equipment from the old collective farms, people pillaged factories for building materials, and gangsters ruled major port towns.

It all came to a head in 1997, when the collapse of pyramid banking schemes set off a violent uprising. In Kosovo, rebel Albanians began a guerrilla campaign against Serb forces in 1996. NATO eventually intervened with a bombing campaign that forced Serbian forces to withdraw from the region. The territory has been under UN control ever since, with the UN recently setting out on a path to extract itself. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević was finally knocked from power in 2001. The war in Kosovo spilled over into Macedonia, where around a quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian. An accord promising more self-government for Albanian areas helped to restore peace.

By 2002 the region was finally mostly peaceful but for lingering fears over the stability of Kosovo and Macedonia. Montenegro declared independence in June 2006, to which Serbia responded by declaring itself the independent successor state of the former union of Serbia and Montenegro. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 didn’t go down the same way; Serbia held the declaration to be illegal.

Stabilisation & Ongoing Issues

Despite lingering concerns about Kosovo and Macedonia, a historical recap of the region shows just how much progress has been made in the last decade. People who fled the area in search of asylum and livelihood are now drifting back. Where hyperinflation was such that it was cheaper to plaster walls with banknotes than wallpaper, economies are now stable and black markets a thing of the past. Since the international community stepped in to lend a hand to Albania, it has made a successful recovery, going from failed state to EU candidate. Croatia – the first state in the Western Balkans to apply for EU membership – is rising above past persecution and now has a Serb deputy prime minister. After years of communist isolation and the wars of the 1990s, the region has opened up and democratic processes have been established. Former enemies are talking again and almost every ethnic, religious, cultural and national mixture is possible. Obstacles to stability such as organised crime and corruption still linger, but now they are viewed as challenges rather than inevitable by-products of failed statehood.

As countries of the region strive for EU integration, more and more war criminals are being surrendered to the Hague. Where once such criminals hid in government skirts, democratically elected leaders are now stepping forward to acknowledge past wrongs and collaborate in attempts to bring war criminals to justice. Where such trials were once considered to point fingers at particular states, now the region is uniting to acknowledge that the crimes of the past were crimes against the whole of humanity. EU membership is conditional on bringing war criminals to justice. Croatia – the first country of the region to apply for membership, in 2003 – saw the arrest of fugitive General Ante Gotovina in December 2005. Macedonia saw the April 2007 commencement of the Hague trial of former interior minister Ljube Boskovski for alleged war crimes during the 2001 ethnic Albanian rebellion. The July 2008 arrest of Radovan Karadžić – wanted for his alleged involvement in several crimes against humanity, including the 1995 Srebrenica genocide – in Belgrade caused jubilation in the streets of Sarajevo.

Some countries are dealing with heavy issues on their way West. Macedonia’s relations with Greece were tested when its long-held dream of NATO membership was vetoed by Greece in April 2008, raising speculation on what will happen when it makes a bid for the EU. Since it became an EU candidate in December 2005, Macedonia has been working to afford its ethnic Albanian minority greater autonomy. In June 2006, Albania increased its EU membership efforts by stamping out crime and corruption and ensuring minority freedoms. The death of media magnate and champion of independent reportage Dritan Hoxha was a blow to Albania. Croatia is making progress in the inclusion of minorities; the deputy prime minister of the new Croatian government as of January 2008 is the first Serb in a key position. Serbia’s newly elected government has been moving towards Europe, signalled by its surrender of several war criminals to the Hague. This and the fact that issues of organised crime and state corruption are now openly challenged rather than hopelessly accepted give weight to the EU enlargement commissioner’s recent comment that ‘there is a new dawn for the Western Balkans, and it is a European dawn’.

But, while most states are busy preening themselves for EU scrutiny, independence issues are not entirely resolved. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 didn’t quite go down in the same smooth way that Montenegro broke from Serbia. While Albanian flags hang defiantly in the streets of Pristina, Serbia remains adamant that ‘Kosovo is the heart of Serbia’.