As with anywhere in the world, generalising about people in a region as diverse as this one is near-on impossible. The Balkans is inhabited by Slavs, Albanians, descendants of Ottoman Turks, Vlachs, Jews and Roma. A given person can have a fascinating combination of nationality, ethnicity, language and religion. Think for instance about the Muslim Roma in Macedonia whose neighbour is a Catholic Albanian or the nonbelieving Croatian Serb living in BiH. Physically this cast of characters may be indistinguishable, but divisions between them have run deep throughout the region’s history.
When it comes to talking about the past, the people you meet will show you many sides of different stories and help you understand that there are few blacks and whites in the Balkans. Many will express frustration at how simplistically issues were chalked up by the outside world, and still are. Serbians especially feel that they were demonised by the media, despite the fact that many Serbs were just as victimised by Milošević as people in neighbouring countries were. Indeed, many Serbs lost their lives opposing Milošević. Elsewhere you will encounter still more shades of grey. You will meet people in BiH and elsewhere who will tell you how local criminals were often as heinous during the war as neighbouring aggressors and blame current problems as much on corruption in their own countries as on foreign policies. On the other hand, you might encounter Albanians who are vocally proud of independence but deafeningly quiet about the 40 years under Hoxha’s rule.
In countries of the former Yugoslavia, some of the older generation will recall the extensive opportunities they enjoyed under communism and lament the lack of opportunities for their children today, but nostalgia for the economic certainty of life under Tito is not the same as supporting him.
After many turbulent years, the revolutionary habit of raging against the machine dies hard. Many people are actively engaged in or at least highly opinionated about politics and vocal in support of or in opposition to policies relating to their future. Young people in particular are excited about a European future. On the other hand, you’ll also come across people in quiet and prosperous places who have reached opinion-fatigue and just want to get on with their lives without discussing everything along the way.
The movement of people around the region and beyond it has left indelible marks on modern life. Millions of ex-Yugoslavs and Albanians left to work in Western Europe, and just about everyone in the region has an uncle or cousin or hairdresser who left for Canada or Germany or Australia. The wars of the 1990s sparked another wave of departures.
Those who permanently settled in their adopted countries gave rise to new diasporas around the region and beyond. Others returned with new skills, languages, ideas and trends. The increasing cosmopolitanism borne of this movement of people is particularly evident in larger cities; stop someone in the street and they may understand you in a few languages, or step into an innovative new restaurant and chances are it was created by a returnee trying their hand at importing foreign culinary concepts. There is little resentment towards those who left; indeed, the support emigrants provided to friends and family back home was one of the reasons many people survived. And the truth is you will still meet people who want nothing better than to leave.
There is a darker side of movement of people; illegal migrants have used the region as a final staging post for the journey into the wealthier parts of Europe, and many victims of human trafficking originate in the Balkans or transit through it en route to destinations in the EU or beyond. Efforts to tackle these problems have increased in recent years.
Most people live in cities and, though fashions are as up to date, bars as sleek and latest releases just as recent as anywhere in Western Europe, strong rural affiliation remains. Many urbanites have country connections and enjoy visits home to revel in the pastoral pace and enjoy homebrewed spirits and homemade condiments. Macho undertones, which still prevail in some areas, are particularly evident in the countryside; women spend Saturday morning grocery shopping while their menfolk idle in cafes. But even in the more conservative Muslim areas you find working women huffily challenging their male counterparts in defiance of traditional gender roles.
The more people you meet in the Balkans the more you will be struck by their similarities rather than their differences. You’ll have the privilege of meeting opinionated, creative, passionate and slightly eccentric folk in every country of the region, and the one generalisation that can absolutely be made about the lot of them is their shared tradition of warmth and hospitality. Invitations aren’t embarrassingly persistent; they are sincere offers that make you feel genuinely welcome wherever you are. A related trait that also transcends ethnic divides is the laid-back approach to time as something to be passed leisurely rather than spent in a hurry.
Religion is an active part of cultural life and identity in the Balkans, as it always has been. The Orthodox churches being raised throughout the region and the numbers of pilgrims making their way to monasteries hint at a religious resurgence. On the other hand, many who espouse a religion practise it very loosely.
The role that religion played in conflicts of the past is complex and often misunderstood. As is true the world over, people of different faiths have been pitted against each other in this region, but they also stood side by side and gave their lives in defence of each other. The relationship between religion and ethnicity is often clear; religion generally says more about a person’s ethnicity than it does about their nationality or spirituality – even nonbelievers may strongly align themselves with their ancestral faith.
To break it down to bite size: the three key religions in the Balkans are Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Islam. Precise numbers are impossible to pin down, but of about 26.8 million people living in the region, around 37% are Orthodox, 25% are Muslim, 25% Catholic and about 13% belong to other faiths or profess no religion.
The biggest Orthodox Church in the Balkans is the Serbian Orthodox Church, with adherents in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, BiH and Croatia. Around 85% of Serbians are Orthodox. The Macedonian Orthodox Church split from the Serbian church in 1967, and has the allegiance of about 65% of the Macedonian population. The Albanian Orthodox Church, also a 20th-century creation, is followed by about 20% of Albanians, mostly in the southern half of the country. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church proclaimed itself distinct from the Serbian Orthodox Church as recently as 1993 and tensions still remain between the two.
Croatians and Slovenians are predominantly Catholic, as are the Hungarians of Serbia’s Vojvodina region. Around 10% of Albanians are Catholic too – Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born into an ethnic Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia. There is also a smallish number of Protestants in the region, mostly ethnic Hungarians in Serbia’s Vojvodina region.
The Muslim population is divided into a number of groups, the largest two being the Sunni Muslims of BiH and southern Serbia, who speak Slavic dialects, and the Albanians of Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia. There is also a small Turkish Muslim community, mostly in old Ottoman towns such as Novi Pazar in Serbia, Prizren in Kosovo and Bitola in Macedonia. Ottoman Islam, which many converted to, evolved into a far more moderate and tolerant variety of Islam than is found in many other parts of the world; drinking alcohol is acceptable and a minority of women choose to wear the veil (though more do in Islamic pockets of Macedonia than in Kosovo or Albania). There are also smaller Muslim groups in the region, including the Sufi Bektashi, named for Haji Bektash Veli (though more popularly known as the Turkish Dervishes). Originating in the 12th century, Bektashism incorporates elements of both Sunni and Shia Islam. In Sufi-inspired Bektashism, unveiled women are allowed to take part in rituals and alcohol is not prohibited. The Bektashi moved their headquarters to Tirana after Sufi orders were banned in secular Turkey.
Despite the moderate Islam that rules in the Balkans, there has been increased concern in recent years about the disconcerting rise of fundamentalism. Extremist elements extant in the Balkans have been attributed to complex factors such as the influence of Wahabbis during the conflicts when they fought as mercenaries alongside Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians in the mid-1990s; foreign-funded missionary activities after the conflicts; and the influence of locals who have returned from Arab states with devout religious educations. The ability of these factors to infiltrate mainstream ideology is heightened by the susceptibility of local populations that have been economically, socially and culturally displaced.
The majority of the Jewish population was murdered by the Third Reich in the 1940s, though one inspiring exception was Albania, where the Jewish population actually grew during WWII as Jewish people sought refuge there and the government and local population actively protected them throughout the war. Today there are few Jews left throughout the Balkans; there are only around 2500 in Serbia, 1700 in Croatia, 500 in Montenegro, another 500 in Macedonia and, ironically, as few as 10 in Albania. Though commemorative museums and monuments are scattered throughout the region, many synagogues have been left to fall into disrepair.