It's been said that the Balkans have produced more history than they can consume. Indeed, the movement of invaders, settlers and traders back and forth across the region over the centuries has created an intricate and complicated patchwork of cultures, societies, religions, ethnic identifications and conflicts. The region hasn’t been controlled by one government since the Roman Empire, and it continues to wrestle with the east–west divide delineated when that superpower split in the 4th century.
Tribes, Colonies & Empires
By around 1000 BC, the Illyrians took centre stage in the area now comprised of Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and northern and central Albania. It's thought that the modern Albanian language, a linguistic oddity unrelated to any other language, is derived from ancient Illyrian. The often-warring tribes erected hill forts and created distinctive jewellery made from amber and bronze. In time they established a loose federation. The Illyrians had to contend with the Greeks, who established trading colonies on the coast at modern-day Durrës and Butrint in the 7th century BC; Apollonia, Cavtat and Korčula in the 6th century BC; and Budva, Vis and Hvar in the 4th century BC.
Also in the 4th century BC, Celtic tribes began pushing southward, establishing the Noric kingdom, the first ‘state’ on Slovenian soil. Meanwhile, in ancient Macedonia, the powerful king Philip II (r 359–336 BC) dominated the Greek city-states. Philip's son, Alexander the Great, spread Macedonian might to India. After his death (323 BC), the empire dissolved amid infighting.
In the 3rd century BC, Queen Teuta of the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe committed a fatal tactical error in attacking the Greek colonies. The put-upon Greeks asked the Romans for military support. The Romans pushed their way into the region and by 168 BC they defeated Gentius, the last Illyrian king, and also conquered Macedonia.
The Western Balkans subsequently sat near the heart of the Roman Empire for over 500 years until AD 395, when the unwieldy Empire was split into an eastern, Greek-influenced half ruled from Byzantium (later Constantinople, present-day İstanbul) and a western, Latin-influenced half ruled from Rome – the fault line ran right through the centre of the Western Balkans.
The Western Roman Empire was weakened by economic crises, plagues and invaders from the north and west. In the 6th century, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian took control of the previously Rome-ruled parts of the Balkans, pushing out the Ostrogoths who had bowled through the region.
The Coming of the Slavs
In the wake of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, various Slavic tribes headed south from their original territory north of the Carpathians. Around the same time, the Avars (a nomadic Central Asian people) rampaged brutally through the Balkans and progressed all the way to Constantinople itself, where the Byzantines duly crushed them. Controversy surrounds the role that the Slavs had in the defeat of the Avars. Some claim that the Byzantine Empire called on the Slavs to help in the fight, while others think that they merely filled the void left when the Avars disappeared. Whatever the case, the Slavs spread rapidly through the Balkans, reaching the Adriatic by the early 7th century.
Two closely related Slavic tribal groups eventually came to the fore in the Western Balkans: the Croats and the Serbs. The Croats settled in an area roughly equivalent to present-day Croatia and western Bosnia. Charlemagne’s Franks gradually encroached from the west and in AD 800 they seized Dalmatia, baptising the previously pagan Croats en masse. In 925, Tomislav was crowned as the first Croatian king, ruling virtually all of modern Croatia as well as parts of Bosnia and the coast of Montenegro.
In the meantime, a group of Serbian tribes came together near Novi Pazar to found Raška. This principality was short-lived, being snuffed out by Bulgarian Tsar Simeon around 927, but not before Raška recognised the Byzantine emperor as sovereign. The 10th century was marked by wars between the Byzantines and the expansionist Bulgarian state, which had strongholds in today's North Macedonia. Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgarians in 1014 and retook Macedonia.
Another Serbian state, Duklja, sprang up on the site of the Roman town of Doclea (Podgorica) and swiftly expanded its territory to include Dubrovnik and what remained of Raška. By 1040 Duklja was confident enough to rebel against Byzantine control, expand its territory along the Dalmatian coast and establish a capital at Skadar (Shkodra in Albania). Around 1080 Duklja achieved its greatest extent, absorbing present-day Bosnia. Civil wars and various intrigues led to Duklja's downfall and power eventually shifted back to Raška. In the meantime, Croatia came under attack from the Venetians in the south and the Hungarians in the north, who would eventually split the kingdom between them.
In 1190 Stefan Nemanja gained Raška’s independence from Byzantium, also claiming present-day Kosovo and North Macedonia for his kingdom. The most powerful of the Serbian 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. Throughout this period Zeta (as Duklja was now called) remained distinct from Serbia.
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 Slovenes and most of the Croats remained beyond Turkish rule, while the Serbs, Albanians and Macedonians were now under it. The Turks had conquered almost the entire region by 1500. The core of Montenegro remained largely independent under a dynasty of prince-bishops from their mountain stronghold at Cetinje. Suleiman the Magnificent led the Ottoman charge, taking Belgrade in 1521 and pushing on as far as Vienna, which he besieged in 1529.
Over time, many communities (particularly in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo) converted to Islam. Orthodox Serbs kept the dream of independence alive through romanticising the hajduci (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.
Ottoman Decline & Austro-Hungarian Control
By now the Austrian Empire controlled the inland parts of Croatia and – with the fall of Venice in 1797 and the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 – it eventually took control of the coast as well.
The once all-conquering Ottoman Empire started lagging behind the other great European powers from the early 18th century. As Europe industrialised, the Ottomans' Balkan domains instead descended into corrupt agricultural fiefdoms, over which the empire had little direct control but from which it still demanded financial tribute.
After a series of revolts, an independent Serbian kingdom gradually emerged over the course of the 19th century, expanding from its early base around Belgrade. After a brutal Turkish response to Christian revolts in Bosnia in 1875 and 1877, Serbia and Montenegro both declared war on Turkey and suddenly the 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. As a counterweight to Russian power in Bulgaria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was persuaded to take military control of Bosnia in 1878.
The Rise of Yugoslavism & WWI
The bloody decline of Turkish power and the emergence of competing nationalisms gave rise to Yugoslavism – the idea of uniting the southern (yugo) Slavs under one flag. Croatian bishop Josip Strossmayer was a strong proponent, founding the Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1867.
Meanwhile, competition between Serbia, Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria for the remaining Ottoman territories intensified. Ethnic nationalism grew as competing powers manipulated identities and allegiances, particularly in Macedonia, where it 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. Meanwhile, radical Serbian movements were agitating for the union of Austrian-controlled Bosnia with Serbia and Montenegro.
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 triggered a domino effect of retaliation throughout Europe, beginning with the Austrian invasion of Serbia. WWI led to unimaginable loss of lives and the downfall of the Austrian and Ottoman Empires and the Kingdom of Montenegro, despite the latter being on the winning side. Out of their ashes arose the Serb-led Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which also encompassed Bosnia and Montenegro) – a pan-Slavic dream renamed ‘Yugoslavia’ in 1929. Albania also emerged as an independent state, ruled by the self-proclaimed King Zog.
With the outbreak of WWII, Yugoslavia was carved up between Nazi Germany, Mussolini's Italy and the Independent State of Croatia led by the far-right Croatian Ustaše party (installed by the Germans), which included modern Croatia, Bosnia 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 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 Serbian royalist Chetniks, led by Draža Mihailović, and the other was the pro-communist Partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito. As well as fighting against the Germans and Ustaše, civil war flared between the Partisans and Chetniks, while the Chetniks committed atrocities against Muslim civilians. Ultimately, the Partisans galvanised the most support throughout the region, eventually winning British and Soviet support. Around 10% of the region’s population perished during WWII.
In Albania, the communists under Enver Hoxha led the resistance against the Italians and, after 1943, against the Germans.
Communism & Collectivisation
Yugoslavia and Albania were the only countries in Europe where communists took power without the assistance of the USSR’s Red Army. 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 charge of the territory in 1999.
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 Albanians in Kosovo, allowing him to consolidate his power base. The autonomy Kosovo enjoyed under Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution was suspended by Milošević in 1989, leading to increased unrest.
As the democracy movement swept the Eastern Bloc, tensions grew between the central powers in Belgrade, dominated by Milošević, and pro-democracy, pro-independence forces in the republics. Slovenia declared independence in 1991 and after a 10-day war became the first republic to break free of Yugoslavia. Croatia soon followed, but the Serbs of the Krajina region, with the backing of the Yugoslav People’s Army, set up their own state and civil war broke out. Macedonia became independent without much trouble. When Bosnia followed suit, the country fell into a brutal civil war between its three main communities: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The war continued until 1995 and cost 100,000 lives.
The Dayton Peace Accords divided Bosnia into a loose federation, awarding 49% to the Serbs and 51% to a Croat-Muslim federation. In the same year the Croatian army retook its breakaway Serb 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.
Albania’s communist regime was toppled in 1992, and the country descended into anarchy; peasants stole animals and equipment from the old collective farms, people pillaged factories for building materials, and gangsters looted museums and ruled major port towns. It all came to a head in 1997, when the collapse of pyramid banking schemes set off a violent uprising.
Rebel Kosovar Albanians began a guerrilla campaign against Serb forces in 1996, who in turn launched a violent crackdown, driving many Kosovar civilians from their homes. After Serbia refused to desist, NATO unleashed a bombing campaign in 1999. Nearly 850,000 Kosovo Albanians fled to Albania and Macedonia, telling of mass killings and forced expulsions. In June, Milošević agreed to withdraw troops, air strikes ceased, the guerrillas disarmed and the NATO-led KFOR (Kosovo Force; the international force responsible for establishing security in Kosovo) took over.
In 2001 fighting broke out in Macedonia, where around a quarter of the population is ethnic Albanian. Peace was achieved through an accord promising more self-government for Albanian areas.
By 2002 the region was finally mostly peaceful except for lingering fears over the stability of Kosovo and Macedonia. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in June 2006. Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 has been recognised by 56% of the United Nations states to date, but, crucially, not by Serbia, Bosnia or Russia.
Stabilisation & Integration
As armed conflicts ceased, the new states of the Western Balkans began setting their eyes on integration into Europe. However, the Yugoslav wars and the vacuum left by the fall of the Albanian regime had opened the door to organised crime and corruption, which is now rife.
Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and was followed in 2013 by Croatia (which has haemorrhaged working-age citizens ever since). 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 – alongside North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Bosnia and Hercegovina and Kosovo are listed as 'potential candidates'. Slovenia was welcomed into NATO in 2004, followed by Albania and Croatia in 2009, and Montenegro (despite domestic opposition) in 2017. North Macedonia signed the NATO accession agreement in February 2019.