Society, Culture, and Security Vedran Kuljanin

What the West Doesn’t Understand About the Balkans

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, to ‘Balkanize’ means “to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units.”

It says something about a region if it experiences so much fragmentation that it spawns a new word in the dictionary. Although the definition of the Balkans is clear, the geography varies depending on whom you ask. In Slovenia, they preach that the Balkans begin with Croatia; Croatia declares that it starts with Bosnia; and Serbia maintains that the region begins with Albania and continues south-east.

Why do the Balkans have such a reputation that its own countries do not want to be associated with the region?

With one of the worst reputations in world politics, ­­outside of the formal definition, the Balkans are synonymous with being half-circus, half-fairy tale, chaotic, unstable – and so on. Analyzed and studied by Western journalists and writers, their intrigue is fixated on the blend of cultures, languages, and religions in the Balkans. The imaginations of social analysts were set ablaze and ideas ran rampant of what the region could one day become if they could just learn to ‘live’ with one another.

There are many things the Western world does not understand about the region and the specific battles each nation faces; this misunderstanding serves as the precursor to its inability to serve the nations that inhabit it.

Why are certain lands so important? Why are certain Balkan countries not recognized by others? Why are certain names not accepted by neighbouring states?

Before the West can move forward with this region, these seemingly miniscule issues need to be understood as the root to all of their current issues today.


Serving as the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, the geography of the Balkans has invited the great powers who have brought with them the weighted chains of political instability.

One of the many unique features of the region is the defiance to the European empires’ divisional plans. The Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires each ruled and implemented political, religious, and cultural changes in the region. Regimes that stretched their borders and had been successful empires elsewhere were left perplexed at their inability to control the region: there were simply too many different actors to achieve resilient stability. Even Colonialism, Fascism, Communism, and the Cold War all passed through with little amelioration of the region.

The historical successes of Balkan nations fuel their ability to repel external domination, but this stubbornness also causes them to hinder the growth of the entire region. To the Western world, it is unnecessary tribal warfare by barbarians looking to destroy their neighbours. In actuality, however, each Balkan nation is emotionally and historically vested in the regional conflicts; changing the future of the political and cultural systems – everything from the textbooks to the family trees.

Understanding the importance of each historical event in the Balkans is the first step to understanding the reconstruction process of the region.


The Western world has difficulty understanding the complicated dissolution of Yugoslavia, and rightfully so, as each nation involved in the breakup produces its own version of the story. Former citizens of Yugoslavia called it the greatest nation in the world, one where they had a high standard of living, free education and healthcare, a strong military, a vibrant economy, and social benefits. Is it possible that simple ‘ancient ethnic tension’ caused the breakup of this great nation?

When one is unable to politically deconstruct the shortcomings of a nation, it becomes easy to brush the problems as ethnic tensions that go back hundreds of years. This is also the model that has been used in the Middle East during the past decade. The danger of this ahistorical way of thinking is that it dismisses the people as genetically, in a political sense, inferior to the Western world – unable to drop emotional tension with their neighbours for the ultimate betterment of a region.

Since it was so successful and endured for generations, Yugoslavia is precisely the success that hinders any movement towards recovery in the region. Now as refugees are scattered around the world, many former Yugoslavs reminisce on the better days while Western counterparts consider them delusional, unable to fathom that such a war-torn region was once a thriving part of the world. The former Yugoslav states were ultimately spoiled by the success of the socialist nation. They are reaching for too much too quickly, when slower and shorter steps need to be taken.


The West openly discusses what they would hope the Balkan region to become. And yet, it seems what the West offers with its left hand, then, it swiftly negates with its right.

War torn regions like Serbia see Western intervention as a heavy burden and can attribute death and destruction to their involvement. NATO’s bombing of Kosovo was a humanitarian mission, but Serbs simply see a bombing campaign that continued without UN Security Council approval. Bombing Kosovo was expected, but major cities like Belgrade and Novi Sad, cities not even close to Kosovo, were also bombed and permanently damaged. Serbs who may never have been to Kosovo or ever seen an Albanian in their life were attacked and watched their city destroyed, even those who were against the Kosovo war.

On the other hand, nations that are allies of the West have their doubts as well. During Bosnia’s war, Serbia had the entire army of Yugoslavia at their disposal while Bosnia’s army didn’t even exist yet; this left Bosnia in need of both food and arms. What the UN decided to do was impose an arms embargo on the region, send malaria tablets, condoms, and expired food to trapped civilians under siege. The food was either leftover from the Vietnam War, contained pork (Recall that Bosnia is a majority Muslim nation) or was canned meat that was refused even by stray dogs and cats. The humanitarian aid by the West prompted Sarajevo to erect sarcastic monuments and ultimately served as another example of the West’s inability to understand the Balkans on a personal level.

Essentially, all current Balkan citizens were alive to experience or hear the glories of Yugoslavia. All within 30 years, these nations experienced war, genocide, a bombing campaign by NATO and the U.S., economic sanctions, and political gridlock. The Yugoslavian passport was once the most coveted and has since become a eulogized relic.

Each Balkan nation has a specific experience dealing with the Western world. While nations like Slovenia have found success, most have not. The West’s inability to understand the complexities of each Balkan nation on a personal level is why it is so difficult for them to work toward Westernization and collaborate with Western powers.

Photo courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency (WikiCommons).


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.

Vedran Kuljanin
Vedran Kuljanin is a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada. After graduating from Ryerson University with a Bachelor of Commerce, Vedran was active in the global legal industry where he was responsible for market research at the international law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright LLP. Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, he is fluent in Serbo-Croatian and is currently pursuing fluency in Italian. His interests include society, culture, international relations and geo-politics, specifically in the Balkan and Middle East regions. Outside of politics, Vedran studies the history of languages and is an avid traveler. You can connect with Vedran on LinkedIn or by email at