Definitions and boundaries
The Balkans are sometimes referred to as the "Balkan
Peninsula" as they are surrounded by water on three sides:
the Black Sea to the east and branches of the Mediterranean
Sea to the south and west (including the Adriatic, Ionian,
Aegean and Marmara seas). While it is not geographically a
peninsula as it has no isthmus to connect it to the mainland
of Europe, this name is nonetheless commonly used to denote
the wider region.
The identity of the Balkans owes as much to its fragmented
and often violent common history as to its mountainous
geography. The region was perennially on the edge of great
empires, its history dominated by wars, rebellions,
invasions and clashes between empires, from the times of the
Roman Empire to the latter-day Yugoslav wars.
Its fractiousness and tendency to splinter into rival
political entities led to the coining of the term
Balkanization (or balkanizing). The term Balkan commonly
connotes a connection with violence, religious strife,
ethnic clannishness and a sense of hinterland. The Balkans,
as they are known today, have changed dramatically over the
course of history.
Etymology and evolving meaning
The region takes its name from the "Balkan" mountain range
in Bulgaria (from a Turkish word meaning "a chain of wooded
mountains"). On a larger scale, one long continuous chain of
mountains crosses the region in the form of a reversed
letter S, from the Carpathians south to the Balkan range
proper, before it marches away east into Anatolian Turkey.
On the west coast, an offshoot of the Dinaric Alps follows
the coast south through Dalmatia and Albania, crosses Greece
and continues into the sea in the form of various islands. .
The word was based on Turkish balakan 'stone, cliff', which
confirms the pure 'technical' meaning of the term. Actually
the mountain range that runs across Bulgaria from west to
east (Stara Planina) is still commonly known as the Balkan
As time passed the term gradually obtained political
connotations far from its initial geographic meaning,
arising from political changes from the late 1800s to the
creation of post-WW1 Yugoslavia (initially the Kingdom of
Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians). Zeune's goal was to have a
geographical parallel term to the Italic and Iberian
Peninsula, and seemingly nothing more. The gradually
acquired political connotations are newer, and - to a large
extentdue to oscillating political circumstances. After the
split of Yugoslavia beginning with June 1991, the term
'Balkans' got again a negative meaning, even if this is
casual again. For example, Romania is also labelled a 'Balkanic
country' even if this is not compliant with either its
initial meaning or later evolutions of the term. Over the
last decade, in the wake of the former Yugoslav split,
Croatians and especially Slovenians have rejected their
former label as 'Balkan nations'. This is in part due to the
pejorative connotation of the term 'Balkans' in the 1990s,
and continuation of this meaning until now. Today the term
Southeast Europe is preferred or, in the case of Slovenia
and sometimes Croatia, Central Europe.
Even if incorrect, both historically and politically, it is
probable that "Balkans" will continue to have a wider, and
pejorative, meaning. Quite often this is rather a cliché
covering ignorance or ill intentions.
Due to the aforementioned connotations of the term "Balkan",
many people prefer the term Southeastern Europe instead. The
use of this term is slowly growing; a European Union
initiative of 1999 is called the Stability Pact for South
Eastern Europe, and the online newspaper Balkan Times
renamed itself Southeast European Times in 2003.
The use of this term to mean the Balkan peninsula (and only
that) technically ignores the geographical presence of
northern Romania and Ukraine, which are also located in the
southeastern part of the European continent.
Ambiguities and controversies
The northern border of the Balkan peninsula is usually
considered be the line formed by the Danube, Sava and Kupa
rivers and a segment connecting the spring of the Kupa with
the Kvarner Bay.
Some other definitions of the northern border of the Balkans
has been proposed:
the line Danube - Sava - Krka (river in Slovenia) -
Postojnska Vrata - Vipava River - Isonzo River (also known
as Soča river)
the line Danube - Sava - Ljubljansko polje - Idrijca river -
the line Dniester - Timişoara - Zagreb - Triglav (mountain).
Balkan peninsula (as defined by the Danube-Sava-Kupa
line)The most commonly used Danube-Sava-Kupa northern
boundary is arbitrarily set as to the physiographical
characteristics, however it can be easily recognized on the
map. It has a historical and cultural substantiation. The
region so defined (together with Romania and excluding
Montenegro, Dalmatia, and the Ionian Islands) constituted
most of the European territory of the Ottoman Empire from
the late 15th to the 19th century. The Kupa forms a natural
boundary between south-eastern Slovenia and Croatia and has
been a political frontier since the 12th century, separating
Carniola (belonging to Austria) from Croatia (belonging to
The Danube-Sava-Krka-Postojnska Vrata-Vipava-Isonzo line
ignores some historical and cultural characteristics, but
can be seen as a rational delimitation of the Balkan
peninsula from a geographical point of view. It assigns all
the Karstic and Dinaric area to the Balkan region.
The Sava bisects Croatia and Serbia and the Danube, which is
the second largest European river (after Volga), forms a
natural boundary between both Bulgaria and Serbia and
Romania. North of that line lies the Pannonian plain and (in
the case of Romania) the Carpathian mountains.
Although Romania (with the exception of Dobrudja) is not
geographically part of the Balkans, it is conventionally
included as a successor state to the old Ottoman Empire.
According to the most commonly used border, Slovenia lies to
the north of the Balkans and is considered a part of Central
Europe. Historically and culturally, it is also more related
to Central Europe, although the Slovenian culture also
incorporates some elements of culture of Balkanic peoples.
However, as already stated, the northern boundary of the
Balkan peninsula can also be drawn otherwise, in which case
at least a part of Slovenia and a small part of Italy
(Province of Trieste) may be included in the Balkans.
Slovenia is also sometimes regarded as a Balkan country due
to its association with the former Yugoslavia. When the
Balkans are described as a twentieth-century geopolitical
region, the whole Yugoslavia is included (so, Slovenia,
Istria, islands of Dalmatia, northern Croatia and Vojvodina
The aforementioned historical justification for the Sava-Kupa
northern boundary would preclude including a big part of
Croatia (whose territories were by and large part of the
Habsburg Monarchy and Venetian Republic during the Ottoman
conquest). Other factors such as prior history and culture
also bind Croatia to Central Europe and the Mediterranean
region more than they bind it to the Balkans. Nevertheless,
its peculiar geographic shape inherently associates it with
the region Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of, as well as the
recent history with Yugoslavia etc.